Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Tuesday before the Great Lent

"And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil" (Luke 4:1-2a).

Jesus' "exodus" into the wilderness following His baptism by John in the Jordan "has a dual symbolism (1) the OT type of Israel in the wilderness Exodus following 'baptism' in the Red Sea and (2) our new exodus of salvation from darkness to light" through our mortal sojourn (a note on Luke 4:1 from The Orthodox Study Bible).

Today is the day before the Great Lent. Yesterday, as my friend Paul Z. pointed out over on his blog Communio, was what Eastern Christians call Clean Monday.

Lent tends to proliferate all kinds of activity, exercising more, spending less money, losing weight, etc. Not to dampen any one's enthusiasm for doing good things for themselves, but we must remain conscious that Lent is not about making ourselves healthier, wealthier, and wiser. Lent is about drawing closer to God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is about opening ourselves to God so that we can be more conformed to the image of Christ Jesus, our Lord, which means being open to how God surprises us. We must get over thinking that by doing x, combined with y, the result I achieve will be z because agape/caritas/charity/love is not calculating. Honest experience shows that God frequently opts out of our schemes. Like God giving us Christ, what we do we do gratuitously and what God does we receive in gratitude. Lent is not about regaining control, but surrendering to God, who is love (1 John 4:8.16). The means we use to accomplish this end, the only end that really matters in the end, are intensified prayer, fasting, and alms-giving.

Our holy mother, the Church, sets forth an indispensable minimum for observing Lent: fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, abstaining from the meat of warm-blooded animals on all Fridays, as well as encouraging us to pray, not just more, but better, along with intentionally performing more acts of caritas. To take a page from Jeff Foxworthy: if your Lenten discipline consists of participating in a Biggest Loser competition, you might be a Jamesian pragmatist. With that said, increased fasting, to include not eating meat, eating less, or no, diary, etc., serves the primary end of drawing us closer to Christ by acknowledging Him as the bread we truly desire, but we also need to spend more time in prayer and in service to others. If some of these have the secondary or even tertiary effect of making us healthier, so be it. My point is that if loving God and our neighbor is neither objectively what our Lenten discipline aims at nor constitutes our subjective intent, it ain't Lent you're observing!

Just as Lent is not re-making ourselves into our ideal worldly image, neither is it about denigrating ourselves before God. Just prior to Lent for the past 3 or 4 years, I have read an article written by Deacon Owen Cummings for Emmanuel magazine, published by the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament: The Spirituality of Ash Wednesday and Lent. Each year I am struck by this quote from one "Harry Williams, a member of the Community of the Resurrection, " who "began a sermon on Ash Wednesday and Lent with these words: 'It is a pity that we think of Lent as a time when we try to make ourselves uncomfortable in some fiddling but irritating way. And it’s more than a pity, it’s a tragic disaster, that we also think of it as a time to indulge in the secret and destructive pleasure of doing a good orthodox grovel to a pseudo-Lord, the Pharisee in each of us we call God and who despises the rest of what we are'." Lent is not about making ourselves good enough for God through strenuous effort. Rather, it is about recognizing God's goodness, especially in and through the gift of His only begotten Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ, and responding freely in love. Quadragesima est sancta quia Deus Caritas Est!

1 comment:

  1. Your posts often leave me without words, in a good way. So all I can say is this - thank you.

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