"Has been in the desert" by Vasily Polenov (1909), from the series, "The Life of Christ" (Wikipaintings.org)
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
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.
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
struggleand it’s a struggle that is supposed to climax in deathand
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.
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
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
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 Mountx-rayed Paul's soul and
showed him the cancer of sin hidden beneath his outward appearance of
holinesshe 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 pietyalmsgiving (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 almsgivinga 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.
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.
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 supportyet who expresses
outrage should the state do exactly the same thing in providing aid to
poor unwed mothers. Suddenly, such aid is “enabling immorality”.
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
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
Living sacrifices, holy and acceptable
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
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).
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.
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.