Lent is not an event. It is not something that happens to us. It is more like a miniature version of a lifelong journey to the center of the self. The purpose of Lent is to confront ourselves in a meaningful way. Lent should help us deal with the rest of our life well. It is a growing season. Lent asks us to decide what is worth dying for in ourselves and what we need to become if we really want to live. It is a series of questions designed to measure our progress on the way to the fullness of life.
Lent is purposely designed to ask us questions. We enshrine the period in ritual to help remind us of the real intention. We fast and abstain from certain foods; we come together and pray more frequently, we make offerings for the poor and the needy. We examine our conscience and admit our failures; we experience remorse. We confess our sins; we experience forgiveness.
Sorrow for sins is a universal religious theme. Recently, I saw a documentary where 20 million Hindus traveled to Allahabad, India, to bathe away their sins in the Ganges River. I was struck by the piety and ritual fervor of these devotees. Millions of people offered prayers, fasted from food, took part in processions, burnt incense, conducted ritual bathing and ablutions. It reminded me that, one way or another, we all go to these places, practice these rituals and make these sacrifices to renew our faith, to recommit our lives, to be forgiven of our sins. We live in a religious world. Lenten practices even spill over into daily life: Restaurants serve Lenten menus and display alms boxes. People do public Stations of the Cross and hold religious processions in the streets. The question Lent asks is a critical one: Do we want to be religious or do we want to be real?
It’s not a new question. In the gospel (Matthew: 6, 1-6, 16-18) Jesus deals with it head on. Of the three pillars of religion in ancient Judaism -- prayer, fasting and almsgiving -- Jesus warns us about being seduced into believing that any of them, by virtue of their own worthiness, is really religious.
About those who get their satisfaction from standing up in church or praying on the streets, he warns his followers “When you pray, go into your room alone and pray in secret.”
To those who gave alms to gain publicity, he said, “When you give alms do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”
In regard to those who fast publicly and feign distress, he said to his own followers, “When you fast, dress up, look your best.” Smile, in other words. The gospel stops us cold. We blink. The real example of faith and commitment, it seems to Jesus, does not come from the rituals we keep. The example lies in what we become because of what we practice. Lent begins, as we practice it let us also listen for the questions.
Blessings, Fr +Timothy