Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday: Lent begins

Since sharing my views on things these days seems to anger quite a few people, I'll go ahead and lead off my post for Ash Wednesday by simply stating that chief among the questions I truly despise is, "What are you giving up for Lent?" In the first place, it's none of your business- pray, fast, give alms in secret and all that (Matt 6:1-8.16-18). I know, God knows, and my spiritual director knows. Among my reasons for disliking this question is not because what I am giving up is some great secret, or that I would never tell anyone. Along the way I may well divulge some of what I am doing and not doing for Lent. Primarily it is because these things are means to an end, not ends in themselves. Let's be honest, the reason most people ask others that question is because they're dying to tell the person they ask what they are giving up. At the expense of sounding harsh, I don't care what you are giving up for Lent. Even so, may God draw you closer Himself through whatever you're doing or not doing for Lent.

I am not in a position to say if my approach to Lent over the years is typical or not. Suffice it to say for many years I was pretty indifferent to Lent as a season of doing anything extra. From the time I became Catholic in 1990 until about 2006 or 2007 I simply endeavored to do what the Church asks of me: to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and abstain from the meat of warm-blooded animals on Fridays of Lent, unless a solemnity, like the Annunciation or St Joseph, fell on Friday, or possibly St Patrick's day, when the bishop might issue permission to forego Lenten discipline. But for several years, beginning around 2006-2007, I became a kind of Lenten enthusiast, who sought to go over and above. Over the past four or five years I have found a ways of observing Lent that help me strike a better balance and stay focused on what this whole exercise is about: drawing closer to God through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

There are two quotes that have helped me enter into and, dare I say, benefit from Lent the past few years. The first is by James Kushiner, an Orthodox Christian, who succinctly noted- "A discipline won’t bring you closer to God. Only God can bring you closer to Himself. What the discipline is meant to do is to help you get yourself, your ego, out of the way so you are open to His grace." This helps me to think about what I might give up, that is, not do, for Lent as well as what I will do.

The second quote, which I received second hand in an article, is from an Ash Wednesday homily delivered by English Passionist Fr Harry Williams quite a few years ago:
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
His point, at least as I take it, is, You are loved by God and whatever you do or choose not to do for Lent must have this as its basis.

The ashes we receive are a sign of hope, not despair. Let's not forget that even though Lent is penitential, penance that is truly Christian is joyful. In other words, there is no need during Lent to pretend that Jesus Christ isn't risen from the dead and reigning at the right of the Father, or that the Holy Spirit goes AWOL for six weeks each year.

It seems to me that there are three fundamental spiritual disciplines taught us by our Lord Himself that constitute any genuine Christian spirituality. The Church reminds of these each year in our Gospel passage for Ash Wednesday: prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. One way to look at these is that fasting is what you plan to give up (i.e., not do) during Lent, alms-giving is what you plan to do positively for others. Prayer? Prayer is really and truly the bedrock of life of with God, of Christian life. Prayer is something almost all of us need to "waste" way more time doing. Fasting without prayer is dieting. Alms-giving without prayer fails to bring hope, to meet the deepest human need, the need that only One can meet.

My prayer for everyone reading this is that God will draw you closer to Himself during this holy, joy-filled, season.

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