Wednesday, February 22, 2012

I Thought Lent Was Just for Catholics

A young Facebook friend asked one of my adult Facebook friends why she would give something up for Lent.  "i thought we didnt have to do lent because Jesus already paid the price for our sins by dying on the cross?"

It made me remember what a foreign concept Lent used to be.  Like many, I thought it was just for Catholics!

So when my adult friend asked me to answer, here's what I said to the younger friend.

Fasting is a Christian discipline that has been part of church practice for centuries, and it's recommended by the Bible. Giving something up for Lent is just a fast from one thing. The point of a fast is for the hunger or cravings to remind you where to go to be filled by spiritual food, instead.

Formulating my answer made me realize that we often make Lent sound more mysterious than it really is. It's traditionally simply a season of fasting, and the Bible not only recommends the practice, but it assumes that all believers will be fasting.  Matthew 6:16 says not "if" you fast, but "when."  Honestly, it's easier to fast when others are doing it too, so why not set aside a season, once a year, to focus on it as a body?

What gets mysterious and confusing, I think, is that is also a season of penitence.  What does that mean?  

Many think it means you focus on your sins for 6 weeks, and I have probably erred that way myself. It can easily devolve into self-improvement, like New Year's resolutions.  I think what it really means, though, is that as you intentionally pare back, by fasting, you become more aware of your fleshly desires, and how you are tempted to make excuses for them and rationalize your choices. You realize how weak you really are, and how much you need God.  You realize how much we buy into the "feed all cravings" message of our culture, and how hard it is to resist that.  You discover you're not as strong, as wise, as self-sufficient or as virtuous as you think, and in humility, you repent from your inflated self-image.

That's penitence.  It's not self-flagellation, it's self-realization in the presence of God.  He rights our image of ourselves. We are not lowly worms in his presence, but we realize that what we are--righteous, justified--we are by grace alone, not by our own strength, wisdom, provision or goodness.  We realize anew that sin is not something to wink at, and not to be excused with the rationalization that it's all been paid for already. Recognition of our sinful nature works humility into us--and it's about the only way that we can gain this essential Christian virtue.

As we fast from, we often choose something to engage in.  It may be Bible reading, or prayer or giving the money we've saved by not buying meat or alcohol or coffee or whatever we are abstaining from.  Often we find that these disciplines of engagement can be as difficult as fasting, and have the same humbling effect.

But it's all good.  Anyone who has practiced Lent in a prayerful way can testify to this.  

I have Catholic friends who feel nothing but guilt every Lent, and my heart goes out to them.  God does bring us to a conviction of sin, but He loves us anyway.  He forgives. He has paid the price for those sins.  He saves us, not just from eternal destruction, but from the foolishness of our own ways on earth. Lent is a time to rejoice in that knowledge.

The Orthodox call Lent "the bright sadness." We need the humbling realization that without God, we are but dust. But with Him, we are filled with light and life!

Happy Lent, everyone.


Janice Skivington said...

Thank you for this post. I really like how you explained the fasting idea. Fasting from, and refocusing your desires. I might ask if I can take a bit from this post to add to one of my future posts? I will link back if you don't mind. I just wrote my post on Ash Wednesday, one of my favorite worship services of the year.

Papa Bear said...

Thanks for posting this. It is a good reminder. And of course, not all Catholics believe that they have to earn their way to Heaven. I remember being repeatedly surprised as I got to know some intelligent and knowledgeable Catholics. What they believed was nowhere near as strange as what I'd been told "all Catholics" believed.

At A Hen's Pace said...

Janice, yes, please quote and link!

Papa Bear, I've had almost the opposite experience, of first knowing very knowledgeable, Bible-reading and renewed Catholics, many of them bloggers...then meeting more and more on the street who seem to know very little about their faith. It's sad. Great theology coming from the top, but many in the pews do not seem to be getting the trickle-down.