Can We Get Lent Wrong?

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death (T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday I).

The season of mercy has arrived. And with the coming of Holy Lent, the public proclamations exhorting us to penitential practice. But, we recognize that there is a danger in joining in with the chorus of voices calling for penitential practice during the season of Lent. Penance in the United States can quickly devolve into a self-improvement program for the individual, seeking his or her own salvation. It's an opportunity to "humble-brag" by proclaiming to the entire world one's own inadequacies, thus revealing to the world of social media one's "hidden" holiness. Lenten penance, for many Americans, places all the emphasis upon the individual rather than on the merciful heart of God. It's about my sins, my works, and thus my grace.

At the same time, there are those who emphasize that Lent isn't really a time "to give something up" but instead to take up new forms of practice to improve our relationship with God and our neighbor. This advice is given by priests and pastoral workers, who are worried about extreme asceticism. It is given by ministers, who acknowledge that at the heart of Lent is coming to meet the person of Jesus Christ anew.

But, this Lenten advice is foolhardy. We cannot take up new practices of holiness without giving something up. Any parent who has a child knows that in receiving a child into one's home, we experience an immersion into love. But, at the same time, this love necessitates moments of sacrifice, of giving up our own self-regard for the sake of the one whom we love. To love your child is to clean up vomit, and there are few human beings in the world who delight in this particular activity. To pick up a new religious practice, to love God anew, will necessitate purgation of our own misdirected desires.

And thus, giving something up for Lent, may be necessary for us to take up new practices. To pray each morning will require us to get up a bit earlier. To think about God more frequently each day may necessitate that we fast from a meal so that our hunger may become a sacramental sign of our desire for God. To share love with our family, to live out the vocation of the domestic Church, may require that we put our smart phones away for a day. And to say that there won't be pain is just naive. To say that there won't be temptations is to deny the existence of the devil, to secularize the Church into a community of the morally capable (albeit slightly lazy) rather than the broken and thus graced and redeemed.

This, of course, is true even when our Lenten practice moves us to care for the poor. You often hear that Lent should really be about care for the poor. And this is true. But care for the poor is not a matter of ethics, of political justice alone. Care for the poor, in Christianity, is a matter of revealed doctrine: the God who became poor, who dwelt among us in the stable, who died upon the cross, revealed God's preferential love for the poor. Our works of justice, thus, are not about our own moral rectitude. Rather, every work of mercy is a participation in God's own mercy revealed in Jesus Christ.

We can get Lent wrong in another way. We can see our penitential practice as nothing but an occasion to prepare for Easter. In a certain sense, there is truth here. All of Lent should prepare us to renew our baptismal vows, to rejoice in the presence of the risen Lord, who manifests to the world the victory of divine love over the stinginess of sin and death.

But, Lent isn't the season of delayed gratification. We don't give up craft beer for Lent so that we can really enjoy it come Easter. We don't avoid meat for a season so that we can gorge ourselves on ham during the Easter Octave. Our preparation for Easter must be about the renewal, the restoration, of grace within our lives so that we can truly sing "Alleluia" in our parish churches once again.

Lenten practice, ultimately, is meaningless if it is not about the renewal of charity in every individual heart and in the Church herself.

The last Sunday before Lent in the preconciliar liturgical calendar (called Quinquagesima Sunday) emphasized the priority of divine charity as the Church entered into a season of fasting and prayer. The Epistle for this Sunday was from St. Paul's letter to the Corinthians (so well-known at weddings):

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. And if I should have prophecy, and should know all mysteries, and all knowledge; and if I should have all faith so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And if I should distribute all my goods to feed the poor, and if I should deliver my body to be burned and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing (1 Cor. 13:1-3).

This reading corresponds more fully to the proclamation at Ash Wednesday that the function of fasting is not to rend our garments, to put a dour face on in the midst of a fallen world. Instead, true fasting is about a restoration of the covenant between God and Israel, between Christ and the Church: "Remember these things, O Jacob and Israel, for you are my servant; I formed you, you are my servant; O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me. I have swept away your transgressions like a cloud, and your sins like mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you" (Is. 44:21-22).

We fast, we pray, and we give alms as ways of re-conforming our will to the logic of divine charity revealed upon the cross. As fallen creatures, we have grown accustomed to preferring our own will to God's will. We love our grudges, our wars, our own opinions. We love our wealth, our power, our prestige. We love being right, our property, our vision of the world. We love our political platform, we love our money, etc.

And thus, Lenten practice is intended to make our wills soft again to the sweetness of divine love so that when we hear God's voice, we respond with supple hearts.

In this sense, Lent is properly the season of springtime. It's not about exercises in self-denial that prove our religiosity to the world (despite the popularity of the #AshTag). Instead, we take up practices, we make time for reflection, because Christ's revelation of love upon the cross should be the center of our lives. It should be the charity that infuses our very being.

Sure, Lent is about purgation. But, it's a purgation from all that keeps us from savoring the sweetness of divine love. It's no different than a husband and a wife renewing their relationship after a bit of discord. There may involve some pain in this healing. But, the point is the healing, not the pain. And if the couple begins to think only about how remarkable their efforts are in restoring the relationship, then healing is rather impossible.

So, we can get Lent really wrong. We can think it is about our own efforts, our own penitential project. We can think it's about delayed gratification, the chance to really delight in treats at Easter. We can think that it is a painless process, where we take up new practices without learning a new way of life.

But we can also practice Lent as a way of softening our hearts, of making ourselves more available to become ciphers of divine charity in the world. We can recognize that the pain that we feel is the healing of a heart grown too small to delight in the power of God's own love. A love revealed in the Eucharist, in the Scriptures, in the poor.

In this sense, we only practice Lent well when we stop thinking about ourselves. And start responding to the God who revealed the fullness of divine love upon the cross. Lent isn't about us. It's about turning around from ourselves, leaving our own paltry hopes behind, and finding a hope that's much bigger.

Our hope is revealed in the crucified and resurrected Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. Lent isn't about trying to find the greatest happiness in the world, to work on our own salvation. It's to give our wills away in imitation of the Son of so wonderful a Father. A Son who dwelt among us, giving us a path to follow, a path that leads to the merciful heart of the Father:

Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all them that are penitent: create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we worthily lamenting our sins, and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever (Ash Wednesday Collect, Book of Common Prayer).

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

Featured Image: By Oxh973 (Own work by Jennifer Balaska) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. 


Timothy O'Malley

Timothy P. O’Malley is the Director of Education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life, where he also serves as Academic Director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy. He teaches and researches at Notre Dame in the areas of liturgical-sacrmental theology, catechesis, and aesthetics. He is the author of numerous articles and books, most recently, the forthcoming Divine Blessing: Liturgical Formation in the RCIA.

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