Monday, March 17, 2014

Happy Lent

By Jimmy Patterson

I've heard and read a few people question the meaning of lenten sacrifices made by Catholics this penitential season. Their questions are not so much about Lent’s literal meaning, but whether Lent truly brings those who observe it closer to Christ – which is, of course, the objective of this the holiest time of the year on the Christian calendar. Some feel such sacrifices hinder us instead of draw us nearer, and wonder how Lent can be considered useful for faith development.

Such suppositions by those not immediately involved in the observance of Lent could easily be reached, I suppose, yet an item or two comes quickly to mind: All this questioning can easily wander off into criticism first, then judgementalism, which doesn’t pass my spell check but all things considered in today’s world, probably should.

We Catholics have taken a fair number of hits for a number of aspects of our faith, all of which I will gladly avoid today except for the subject of Lent. Questions of ‘Why do you guys do that?,’ ‘Why the long face?’ and ‘What is that dirt on your forehead?’ are three of the most-repeated by those who do not observe the tradition. The perceptions of gloominess can be largely laid at the doorstep of the Church, which has in years past stressed sacrifice, suffering and sorrow for our sins. Lately, though, there are some who are moving away from the giving-up aspect of the season.

Lent shouldn’t be about giving up. It should be about handing over. A protestant minister friend takes the notion a step further and suggests Lent is about dying. Not just Christ’s, but ours. My friend does not think Lent is about dying just because sacrificing chocolate can about kill ya, but rather dying to one’s self, to things of the earth, to temptation — and I suppose even to chocolate if you eat 15 Hershey bars a day — and doing it all for the love of Christ. Which brings us back to ‘handing it over.’

I keep hearing that some Protestant churches are becoming more open to lenten practices. A deacon friend of mine took a call recently from a young adult group at a large Protestant church in Midland, asking if they could participate in stations of the cross. Yet questions of “Why do you do that and what does it accomplish because it seems to me to be a traffic jam on your road to faith?” are popping up with more regularity. Yet, if my faith practice draws me nearer to God, why should the how and what of it ever come into question?

Catholics are often wrongly perceived as having to suffer 24/40 (actually 47 calendar days) between Ash Wednesday and Easter. There is no doubt a portion of people that think we all go hungry, suffer horrible and endless headaches from caffeine deprivation, fall hopelessly behind on “Walking Dead” episodes and rudely disappear from Facebook after we post some mystical message about going dark for the Lord. But God doesn’t want us to go hungry, have headaches or even rid ourselves of earthly enjoyments. He just wants us to be mindful of our hunger for Christ — and the hunger of the poor. I know plenty of people who aren’t giving up anything, but are enhancing their spiritual life — others are even enhancing someone else’s life as part of their Lenten promise.

Personally, Lent has become the holiest time of year. With wisdom taking seed wherever and whenever it can (not always easy for wisdom, mind you), the real message we need to hear year in and year out is the message of the Resurrection. Nothing against the Incarnation, which was of course absolutely necessary for Christ to accomplish all He came to do on earth.

I left the smudge on my forehead after Ash Wednesday Mass. Mostly because I forgot it was there. Ten days later, I still remember the cashier checking me out at the grocery store and seeing her smile and those involuntary glances directed at the ‘dirt’ on my brow. She said nothing to me, but she knew where I had been and what it meant and what I was trying to stand for. So was I a witness? Or was I blowing my horn for all to see and hear as it says we are to avoid (especially since I had a large bag of Hershey’s kisses in my cart)? In some cases, not an easy answer. But when the cashier smiled at me I smiled at her. The message sent and the message received was one of joy.

Pope Francis wrote in his masterful exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” that there are too many Catholics who live life “like Lent without Easter.” Fortunately, more and more of us are making our way through Lent mindful of the Good News while holding close with reverence the suffering He endured for us. Some of us may not eat Cheerios on Tuesdays or drink a glass of Merlot on Thursdays from now until Easter, and, in a perfect world, we would all give up red meat on Fridays during this season. But can a Cheerio-less Tuesday or a Facebook-free 40 days, or life without top sirloin once a week actually qualify as suffering? Or are those all, in today’s parlance, ‘First-world problems?’ For me, abstaining from whatever I choose is not so much sacrifice but rather opening myself up and making more room for God by being more mindful of Christ, the poor, forgiveness, love and my chances of a joy-filled eternity. One man’s sacrifice is another’s open heart.

I recently heard a priest on an afternoon Catholic radio program lean in to the mic and open his portion of the conversation by saying, “Happy Lent!” I smiled.

Not so long ago it would have proved an oxymoron. Not so 21st century Catholicism.

Let us remember — no, let us never forget — Christ’s suffering. But let us also be joyful in living a life with him at the center, by loving our neighbors and our selves; by remembering to forgive others who have wronged us, and for those we perceive to have wronged us, let us forgive ourselves.

Our faith should not be a burden. No one, Catholic or non-Catholic, should see it as such. Lent does not call us to suffer on our journey. It calls us to joy.

Happy Lent.

No comments:

Post a Comment