I’m pretty lousy at doing Lent. So I’m a natural for yakking about it since (just between you and me) you’re pretty lousy at it too, no? Seriously, who says, “I am the most awesome penitent of all time!”
We all do a lousy job at Lent, by and large, because Lent is about repentance and mortification and preparation for death with Jesus on the cross and self-donating love that resolutely puts aside our own wants, needs, and desires in favor of obedience to God and the love of our neighbor. And, come on, who wants that?
What I want is what I want. I want a salvation that comes with the praises of this world. I want people applauding me, understanding me, acclaiming my goodness and intelligence. I want cash prizes and awards ceremonies where (after the tearful tribute from, say, the Pope which concludes, “Thanks Mark. I have learned so much from you!”) the people I admire most in this world leap to their feet and drown me with thunderous applause and roses. I want pan-fried oysters and lots of ‘em, followed by chocolate and some favorite movie or book to curl up with. I want leisure to finally work on that novel I’ve been noodling. I want a prayer life in which I am given to instantly see and understand divine mysteries and pain is simply a theoretical problem that, at worst, troubles somebody else. I want to be seen as generous, but I don’t want it to cost me anything. I want to have solid abstract answers to the problem of suffering without needing to actually have any contact with icky, suffering people. I want to be 19 forever, with a hundred bucks in my pocket and all the insolence of youth propelling me into a future where the world is mine, babes are free for the taking, and responsibility is for suckers, all under a smiling summer sun.
In short, I want God to finally get over his intractable hostility to the world, the flesh, and the devil and broker some kind of reasonable compromise between holiness and selfishness. Can’t we all just get along?
Going into the desert
Lent is the reminder that all this sort of thinking is, well, ashes. Bupkis. Skubala. “Refuse”—as English translators of Scripture politely put it. It’s the reminder that this passing world is passing indeed and that none of that stuff is going to matter in the final analysis. Lent is for focusing the mind, heart, and spirit on God: for getting away from it all, not on an all-expense-paid Lenten Caribbean Cruise, but to the desert.
That’s the first thing to notice about Lent: the desert. One of the striking insights that Christianity carries over from Judaism is that spiritual purification happens in the desert, not in a leafy glade. It’s not something we like, but it is something we intuit is true nonetheless. Israel escapes Egypt and begins a journey that, for the ancient trade caravans, took eleven days. But for the People of God, it takes forty years. Why? Because that’s what it took. Getting Israel out of Egypt was easy. Getting Egypt out of Israel? That took some doing. A whole generation would have to die off and a new one, purified by the astringency of the desert, would have to arise before Israel was ready to enter the Promised Land.
Jesus, recapitulating this, will similarly spend forty days in the desert fasting and wrestling with the devil as he brings our human nature to heel in conformity with his divine nature. Lent is our participation in that struggle—and it’s a struggle that is supposed to climax in death—and resurrection. Dryness, aridity, struggle: these are features, not bugs, of the Christian life. If you are experiencing them, it does not mean you are a spiritual failure. It means you are a participant in the life of Jesus Christ and have good hope of sharing his reward.
It is notable that the Sermon on the Mount is, in good measure, a homily on how to do Lent well. It begins by recalling that Jesus is the New Moses of a New Exodus. That’s why Jesus goes up on a mountain at the beginning of Matthew 5 just as Moses went up on Sinai out there in the desert. Jesus then promulgates the New Law of the New Covenant, beginning with the Beatitudes.
Now the thing about the Beatitudes is that the blessings pronounced are all Lenten kinds of blessings. Just as nobody wants to go to the desert, so nobody wants to be poor, or mourn, or hunger and thirst, or be persecuted, or have to put up with all the other things Jesus pronounces a blessing on. But Jesus’ point, of course, is that the kingdom is radically counter-intuitive. In Luke, he will pound that point home by adding to the blessings on the stuff we want to avoid a bunch of “woes” to all the stuff we imagine will make us happy: “Woe to you who are rich, woe to you when men speak well of you, etc.” In short, Jesus begins the new law with the reminder that we save our life by losing it: which is pretty much what Lent is all about.
So how do we do that? Well, Matthew 5 and 6 is all about that and, like much of Jesus’ teaching, it begins with the revelation already vouchsafed to Israel in the law of Moses. So he himself says “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). Jesus is not a revolutionary bent on overturning the law. Rather, he is the Messiah the law and the prophets foretell, the Anointed One who means to dial the implications of that law up to eleven. So he tells us that if you hate your brother or lust after your sister in your heart, you’ve as good as committed the sins of murder and adultery. In short, he points to the heart, not the hand or the groin, as the locus of evil and insists that it is here we must focus our efforts to repent.
X-rays, healing, and helping
Paul gets this. That’s why, in Romans 7, he dwells on the fact that while he was outwardly obedient to the moral code of Israel, when the x-ray machine of the Law was turned upon his heart “sin revived and I died” (Rom. 7:9). In the command to not covet (a law no cop in the world but our own conscience can enforce) Paul found himself undone. When the law did what Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount—x-rayed Paul’s soul and showed him the cancer of sin hidden beneath his outward appearance of holiness—he could not escape the problem.
But at the same time, Paul realized that, in doing this, the law had done all it could do. For, like the x-ray machine, all the law could do was tell him where the cancer was. As with the x-ray, more and more applications of the law could not assist in the process of healing Paul’s soul. Rather, he realized that he needed the Divine Physician to heal him. That healing comes through baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection and participation in his life. And that participation, says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, happens when we take up the traditional practices of Jewish piety—almsgiving (Matt. 5:42, 6:1-4) prayer (Matt. 6:5-15), fasting (Matt. 6:16-17)—and let the Holy Spirit make them ways of transformation into the image of Christ.
It’s notable that Jesus begins his teaching on these traditional acts of piety, not with prayer, but with almsgiving—a matter that touches on the other profoundly sacred thing we keep in our pants: our wallet. Notably, his teaching on almsgiving is rooted in his teaching on generosity and non-violence: that is, on the extremely difficult demand he places on us not to give tit for tat or expect reward. Right in the middle of his commands to turn the other cheek, love your enemies, and go the extra mile for oppressors and other jerks, he also places this deeply un-American command: “Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you” (Matt. 5:42). This is the passage you never hear about when you are told “God helps those who help themselves” (words that appear nowhere in Scripture) and, of course, the beloved-by-libertarians passage: “If any one will not work, let him not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10).
Here’s the thing: that line is not from the Second Letter of Paul to the Republicans. It’s Paul talking to those inside the Household of Faith and telling Christians not to mooch off their fellow believers on the excuse that the Second Coming is just around the corner. It presumes, in short, that the reader is a baptized believer with an understanding of his responsibilities to the Christian community and the power to do something about them via honest work.
But for those outside the Christian community: the stranger, the poor? It’s the command of Jesus that is Standard Operating Procedure. Give to anyone who asks. Not the “deserving”. Anyone. Period. Why? Because none of us are deserving and yet “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). Any pagan or tax collector can give to the “deserving” and expect to be repaid. But Jesus is talking to “sons of your Father who is in heaven” and so expects something radically greater: a trust that God will provide for us as we are generous with others. Of course, Jesus calls us to be wise as serpents as well as innocent as doves. So we are to be smart with our generosity and not help facilitate somebody’s meth habit. But this is no excuse for not being generous to the meth addict. It’s simply to find ways to do it creatively, such as with food or shelter instead of money.
This brings us to an interesting divide in American culture. For many, the temptation can be to support state-mediated solutions to care for the poor, along with a personal approach that can best be described as “cheapskate”. So, for instance, we have the embarrassing spectacle of Joe Biden giving a whopping $369 a year to charity while talking a good game about government aid to the poor.
On the other hand, there is also the curious phenomenon of the personally generous conservative who is intensely hostile to any form of state provision for the common good. Indeed, one of the more curious rhetorical strategies deployed by such Christians is to complain that “If the state forces me to pay for food stamps it deprives me of the chance to be generous”. So you will find the curious cognitive dissonance of a pro-life Christian who (in theory) supports the Crisis Pregnancy Center that welcomes and helps any woman in any crisis pregnancy with all sorts of material aid and support—yet who expresses outrage should the state do exactly the same thing in providing aid to poor unwed mothers. Suddenly, such aid is “enabling immorality”.
In fact, however, the Church’s approach is both/and: it is perfectly legitimate for the state to provide for the common good, particularly when doing so will, just like the CPC, relieve pressure on the poor to abort their children. This is common sense: Teach chastity all you like. But first make sure you’ve done what you can to make sure that innocent babies are not killed because you have an ideological fetish about not allowing a few pennies be taken out of your taxes to help low income mothers. If CPC’s can help unwed mothers avoid abortion, why not Caesar too?
Bottom line: both personal generosity and support for legitimate social safety nets by the state comport with the Church’s tradition of generosity, since it is always Christ to whom we are being generous.
Living sacrifices, holy and acceptable
Related to this is the discipline of fasting. At its most basic level, fasting means going without food (though we can also fast from other things such as little pleasures, sex, sleep, etc.). It is a basic way of living out the command to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1). Fasting is tied with liberty in our tradition, partly because it exposes our places of bondage. The quickest way to find out what really owns you is to try to forego it. And Lent is all about breaking bonds. In one of the climactic readings of the season, Jesus says of the risen Lazarus, “Unbind him, and let him go” (Jn. 11:44). We are set free in Christ by fasting. Free for freedom (as Paul tells us in Galatians 5:1), but also free to serve Christ in our neighbor. As we pursue the discipline of fasting, our very goods, which used to own us, become our possession again so that we can give them away with no expectation of reward or return.
This Lent, observe fasting, not with an eye to “giving up something for Lent” (in the spirit of thinking that the essence of the Rosary is maintaining an accurate bead count), but instead pay attention to those moments when you are shown what is controlling you. Hand those things over to God in prayer. It can be a very powerful and liberating thing to discover how weak you are, as Paul discovered (2 Cor. 12:7-10).
Speaking of which, prayer is the last pillar of Lenten observance. And once again, Jesus counsels us to direct our prayer, as our almsgiving and fasting, toward God. This may seem rather obvious, since to whom else is prayer supposed to be directed? But, of course, a moment’s thought shows that prayer, like almsgiving and fasting, can easily be perverted into a play for earthly rewards. In modernity, this is blunted by the fact that the overt pieties of Jesus’ time are no longer a cause for social envy. So while rich philanthropists still get lionized in the New York Times for founding the latest Just Enough of Me and Way Too Much of You Population Control Initiative for Culling the Third World, and Hollywood starlets still have a public eager to fall down breathless at their manicured feet in admiration over their awesome fasting practices as they undergo physical training in preparation for their latest role as a zombie slayer, nobody gets street cred for making a noisy show of Christian prayer. Christian prayer is basically super-uncool and a Christian who makes a public show of it is not going to gain the admiration of the world.
But “spirituality”? That is way cool. Chatter about a gauzy disembodied “Spirit” without a definite article; a ghostly, disincarnate cosmic Christ with no relation to the Church full of concrete, tacky people; gassing about a Divine Principle who commands nothing but that we feel affirmed in our okayness? That is the postmodern equivalent of the Pharisee praying aloud in the Temple court to be seen and admired by others. And as with that form of prayer, we will have our reward from men and not God if we slyly reduce our faith to something like that in order to be pleasing to the world.
Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving remain the basic pillars of our Lenten practice for a very good reason: Jesus did them, Jesus taught them, and Jesus continues to work in and through them to make us like himself.