Sunday, March 10, 2019

On Lenten Observances: A Sunday Rumination

     It’s a sad fact that most Christians think of Lent as a time of penance and renunciations. The Church has historically emphasized self-imposed penances and sacrifices – fasting and Friday abstinences are the best known – but those things should not be taken as good in themselves. Indeed., if they’re viewed in isolation from all else, they become detriments to the object of Lent.

     Lent, like Advent, is a time of preparation for the commemoration of a mighty event. Its observances are intended to assist in personal preparation, not by inflicting discomfort but by making room for something else: something more than even a typically devout Christian’s life accommodates during the other portions of the liturgical year.

     Christians hear a lot about the three spiritual disciplines characteristic of Lent:

  • Prayer,
  • Fasting,
  • Alms-giving.

     But why? Don’t we pray during the other parts of the year? Of course we do. Do we not do enough of it? A fairly silly question, that. One prays to approach God with one’s thoughts, perhaps to ask for a grace, to express contrition, or simply to praise Him. There’s probably no such thing as “too much” prayer, and while there might be such a thing as “too little,” it would be an intimately personal measure, not something about which Smith could or should castigate Jones.

     As for fasting, the practice has occasionally been prescribed as a path toward spiritual cleansing. This is badly misconceived. Depriving the body, by itself, does nothing for the soul. Besides, it’s not as if gluttony isn’t a sin already, one we’re supposed to avoid at all times. So why fast?

     Alms-giving, also known as material charity, has similar ambiguities built into it. Most Christians practice material charity of some sort all year long. Are we, then, supposed to do more of it, from the premise that what we do the rest of the year is somehow insufficient? If so, why wouldn’t it be a year-round prescription?

     The key elements of these things are not what they ask us to do in and of itself, but what becomes possible because of them.

     Many non-Christians find prayer baffling. Why pray, if God already knows what’s going on, what you need and what relief you seek? Many Christians, especially among the newly arrived at faith, find prayer difficult, a combination of rote recitation and a daunting need to articulate personal matters one would hesitate to express to a spouse or a close friend to a Deity that already knows all about them. The inept way in which many priests and ministers counsel their flocks about prayer adds to the difficulties.

     I’ve written an appreciation of how prayer really works once already. I trust I needn’t repeat it. Prayer during Lent should acquire an additional focus: the consciousness of the impending Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Given the magnitude of those events, prayer focused specifically on them is highly desirable. If that adds to the time budget one devotes to prayer, so be it. But the focus on the Passion and Resurrection is the thing of true importance, the part that assists us in preparing to celebrate those events as they deserve.

     Fasting, which should be interpreted to include the deliberate forgoing of any particular pleasure, is likewise a preparatory step. Done properly, it opens an inner sense highly important for Lent. Self-deprivation has nothing to do with it. Consciousness of human frailty and mortality is the key: the recognition that Christ embraced those attributes of Man during His time on Earth.

     The Son of God wore human flesh specifically to make his Passion and Resurrection possible. In doing so, and in accepting the tortures of His Passion, He expressed a quality of brotherhood with us that we often fail to appreciate. He need not ever have experienced either pain or death...but He did so, that we might know both the truth of His New Covenant and the depth of His love.

     A sincere Christian is likely to be materially charitable all year round. Lent needn’t change that behavior in quantity, especially for those of us who are “against the stops” materially. But we should refocus it, again in consciousness of the impending events. Nearly everyone has known or will know fear, privation, and suffering. All men must die. In these things we are brothers, both with one another and with Christ. A heightened sense of that brotherhood is entirely appropriate to Lent, for among the things Christ decried on Earth was the tendency among the better off to set themselves apart, aloof and untouchable, from those less blessed by material things.

     Increased charity, if done with caution lest it do harm rather than good, is always a good thing. But once again, the focus is the key. “There but for fortune.” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And most tellingly of all:

     Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
     For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
     Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
     Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
     When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
     Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
     And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

     [Matthew 25: 34-40]

     Have a joyous Lent. May God bless and keep you all.

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