Monday, February 13, 2012

Everything You Need to Know About Lent

Soon and very soon, parishes everywhere will pack themselves full of pancakes and people for the traditional Fat Tuesday feast.  The next day, of course, is Ash Wednesday.  There is an obvious and dynamic connection between these two days: we eat up the fat on Tuesday because we are preparing to live without it come Wednesday and for the next forty days: the season called Lent.

Lent, for its part, is popularly known as the time to give up something, like cokes, chocolates, or cigarettes.  Sometimes we name that we're better off without these things - perhaps because they are unhealthy; other times Lent simply becomes a kind of confirmation about what we have taught ourselves about God: namely, that it can't be godly unless it hurts.

Because Lent encourages sacrifices (even small ones), Lent is easily misunderstood, I think.  The misunderstanding begins when we encounter Lent apart from the mystery of faith Lent serves: Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again. 

Abstracted from this mystery, Lent appears to many as primarily concerned with pious moral-ism - what we do or don't do.  This is problematic even on the purely moral level because the moral abstinence of Lent is as equally likely to lead to relapse as it is to renewal in the end.  "Sometimes I leave Lent having forgotten about cigarettes altogether," one person tells me.  "Other times I sing Easter's 'alleluia!' in part because I can finally smoke another drag."

But do we really think God cares about our chocolate consumption?

Enter Robert Farrar Capon.  In his book The Parables of Judgment Capon famously writes that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus ended religion, once and for all.  By religion, Capon does not mean the corporate gathering of the worshiping community; he means the idea that you or I can manipulate the Divine by our actions.  The death of religious superstition: "Lord, you scratch my back and I'll get yours."  "I will do X and God must do Y."   The Good News of Jesus is that God comes as undeserved and unexpected gift.  Christianity, says Capon, is the death of salvation produced at my own hand. 
Back to Lent, then.  How can Lent be returned to the context of what God in Christ has done for us?  If sacrifices are those things by which we try to control God or others, what would it mean to sacrifice our sacrifices? (1)

I think of parents, for example.  God knows that parenting is an enormous sacrifice.   Given the enormity of the sacrifice, why do so many empty nesters struggle to know what to do with themselves when the sacrifice is relieved?  I think of the enablers of alcoholics, whose identity is so wrapped-up in their "care" for another, that they prevent the other individual's healing.  I think of any and every time I am tempted to believe that salvation in this moment will be produced at my own hand.

Let me be clear: I'm not suggesting that parents give up parenting for Lent.  I'm only wondering why the biggest sacrifices are the hardest to end, and I'm admitting that at least part of the difficulty is my unwillingness to end my false religions; the extent to which our identities becomes wrapped up in illusions of self-sufficiency.  Grace comes always and only as undeserved and unexpected gift.

So sacrificing my sacrifices might mean turning existing relationships on their heads: being taught instead of teaching; following another instead of leading; listening instead of speaking; unhooking my sense of self-importance; naming out loud that the gift of the moment is God's to give.  Maybe this turns my so-called sacrifices into privileges: a parishioner the other day, telling me how honored she is to be able to care for her mother, as she dies.  The gift of the moment is God's to give.  Salvation comes from him.  Thank God.

And have a holy Lent.


(1) I'm indebted to Stanley Hauerwas here and his thought-provoking piece, Sacrificing the Sacrifices of War.


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