Lent is supposed to hurt

Detail from an 18th century headstone in a cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts.

One of the perks of living in the center of town is we can now walk to Mass. There is a Catholic diocese and high school only a mile away from our house, which makes for an enjoyable stroll during “winter” in Florida, especially since the campus is connected to our neighborhood by a well-maintained and shady bicycle trail. Today it gave me an hour roundtrip to talk to our daughter about the meaning of Ash Wednesday, which was also nice.

I would not have imagined it possible for Ash Wednesday Mass to be an even more somber occasion than usual. But with the war in Ukraine and Russia’s incessant threats of nuclear war, “remember you are ashes and to ashes and to ashes you will return” was clearly already on everyone’s mind.

I was amused, however, to learn our priest shares one of my pet peeves about the Lenten season: cheap, legalistic interpretations of sacrifice. “Lent is not about giving up chocolate for 40 days,” he railed. “It about prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.”

You see facetious takes on Lent virtually everywhere these days. The concept of “fasting” is long lost on our decadent society. In the news today, we learn that Biden is giving up ice cream and “all sweet things” for Lent. In USA Today‘s explainer on Lent, they cover “why Christians give up their favorite things.” This will be followed by the obligatory social media posts about how it is just so hard to go without sweets – ugh, I could really use a Snickers right now, but I’m doing this for Jesus, you know. Years ago, my old college roommate announced on Facebook that she was following Oprah’s advice and “giving up thinking negative thoughts about herself” for Lent. When I asked her how that was supposed to be a sacrifice, she unfriended me because I was making her think negative thoughts about herself. (I’m not kidding, this actually happened.)

Lent is supposed to be a period of grief that ends with the ecstatic realization of the resurrection. It is about tearing down all of the things that separate you from God and replacing them with things that bring you closer to God. This is the period where you take stock of your material attachments and work on developing an eternal perspective. Or, as our priest put it, Lent must be a lifestyle change. Christian conversion is not supposed to be an event, but a habit of action.

If you can treat your sacrifice like you are merely checking a box, on par with filling out a Census form or registering your toaster oven with the manufacturer, then it’s not a sacrifice for you. You are supposed to overcome an environment of coveting and longing, to trade it for a personal relationship with the eternal (through prayer and focusing on Scripture) and promoting the eternal city here on Earth (through good works and hospitality).

I think on this point, it is useful to remember the origin of Lent – why is it even part of the liturgical calendar?

Biblically speaking, Lent corresponds to the Temptation of Christ – the 40 days Jesus spent in the Judean Desert resisting the influence of Satan immediately after his baptism.

Everything that happens in the New Testament mirrors the timeline of the Old Testament. It is a re-telling of human history where instead of everything collapsing, it is restored to perfection. The life of Jesus is the foil to Original Sin and the Fall of Man – instead of being the story of how human history demonstrates a falling away from God’s laws, the life of Jesus is a new covenant that offers the possibility of an ideal relationship with God. The story of how the early church spread across the Roman Empire and beyond is the foil to how Israel destroyed itself by turning away from God. The construction of the Church is the reconstruction of a City of God (an upright society).

Lent is our opportunity to choose Paradise over narcissism. Try to imagine how impactful the tale of Jesus in the desert would be if instead Jesus simply decided to give up ice cream.

Along these lines, I was also happy to find this video – No More Wimpy Catholicism. In it, the priest asks people what kind of impact their lives could have if they put the same amount of effort into spiritual growth as they put into their career, into their social status, into maintaining and chiseling their bodies. He suggests they think about Lent as CrossFit for their soul. I’m not sure he intended the pun, but “try fitting the Cross into your life” works here.

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