The Gift Of LentMARK SHEA
Many of my Protestant friends are uncomfortable with Lent. "It's all about mortification and self-discipline when we know that the Risen Jesus is joyful and alive!" they say. "We don't need to mortify ourselves to please God. That's why Jesus died for us, so we don't have be 'good enough'.
Catholics call it a 'holy season' and Paul says in Colossians 2:16-17 that we
shouldn't observe any day as special. So hasn't the Church disobeyed the Bible
by doing the Lenten thing?"
Before we talk about Lent as a supposed
way of "being good enough" for God, let's begin with this last objection first:
that the Lenten season is somehow unbiblical. Now with all due respect, this seems
to me to miss the whole point, not only of Paul's warning in Colossians, but of
being a human being. For consider how we behave in all the areas of life we don't
stick in the religion bin for special treatment.
We observe birthdays
and anniversaries, for instance. Are we denying God's word in doing so? Or are
we simply doing what all humans do when they have occasion to celebrate or honor
something? Likewise, we observe anniversaries, National Save-the-Endangered-Squid
Week, Mother's Day and moments of silence for victims of the Challenger disaster.
Why? Because a basic human way of honoring and loving something is to set aside
a span of time in reserve for it. It's why we have story times for our kids and
romantic times with our spouses and quiet times with God. It wouldn't be the same
without such a time of focused attention.
Now Lent is a 40 day quiet
time in which we are called to do nothing more or other than focus on the sufferings
of Jesus in same way. Just as birthdays cause us to zero in on the happy occasion
of birth and the remembrance of November 22, 1963, gives us pause to contemplate
the life and death of President Kennedy, so Lent calls us to attend carefully
to the Christ Who denies himself for our sakes, goes into the wilderness and confronts
evil in preparation for his great saving work. It leads up to the great drama
of the Passion just as Christ's whole life did. And as he spent 40 days in the
wilderness (like Israel's 40 years in the wilderness), so we are called to "follow
him" there as we must follow him to Golgotha. "If anyone would be my disciple,"
says Jesus, "he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me."
Lent then is "an acceptable time" for contemplating and doing this work of following.
That is, it's appropriate to celebrate those 40 days here, right before the Passion
and Resurrection week just as it is appropriate for my friends to celebrate my
birthday on its anniversary and not just any old time they feel like.
This brings us to another point about Lent: it is a family celebration. Imagine
how you'd feel if you invited a guest to a birthday party and he replied, "I'll
celebrate your birthday by staying home and thinking about you from time to time.
I'm just not a joiner, so I'd rather not bother with all those other people at
the party. I don't really care for your friends." If all the guests did that,
there'd be no celebration. Yet many people think just this individualistically
about the Christian life.
But the fact is we are called to observe Lent
(like all things Christian), not as hermits who are separating themselves from
the "impure" but as the Body of Christ growing "to the full maturity of Christ
the head, through whom the whole body grows, and with the proper functioning of
the members joined firmly together by each supporting ligament, builds itself
up in love" (Eph. 4:15-16).
This is the key to understanding what Paul
is really talking about when he warns the Colossians against letting anyone "pass
judgment on you in terms of what you eat or drink or what you do on yearly or
monthly feasts, or the the sabbath. All these were a shadow of things to come;
the reality is the body of Christ" (Col. 2:16-17).
Paul is not saying
here or anywhere else "Fasts and mortifications are bad because Jesus died for
you and you are saved by grace." How could he when both he and Jesus fasted? Moreover,
just a few lines later he writes urging the Colossians to "Put to death [that
is, mortify] whatever belongs to your earthly nature" (Col 3:5). So what's Paul
saying? Don't cut ourselves off from the reality that disciplines like fasting
point to: The Church which is the body of Christ.
Scripture is therefore
emphatically not saying "Don't observe Lent." Rather it says "Don't cop a super-spiritual,
holier-than-thou fat attitude over your brothers and sisters. Go through Christ's
trials in union with Him and with the members of his Body. For you are part of
that body too!"
Catholics View Suffering
That's why Paul talks (in that same
letter to the Colossians) about "filling up in his flesh what is still lacking
in regard to Christ's sufferings for the sake of his body, which is the Church"
(Col 1:24). Does Paul mean that Jesus' cross is insufficient to save us? Nope.
He means that his sufferings are to be joined Christ's and offered for the sake
of his Body. In short, he is talking about being crucified with Christ and (like
Christ) for the love of his people.
For Catholics see suffering, not
as something we do to be "good enough for God," but rather as God's strangest
gift to us. And we do so because, like the Apostles who counted themselves fortunate
to be worthy of suffering for the Name (Acts 5:41), we agree with Scripture that
it is an undeserved honor (and one we could never earn) to "be found worthy of
suffering for the Name" (if our little acts of charity and abstinence can even
be compared with his complete act of self-denial which made us "good enough" for
God 2,000 years ago).
So in the end, my Protestant friends have nothing
to worry about. For Lent is not anti-scriptural. It is not something we give to
God to earn his love, but rather his gift of love to us which he wants us to share.
It is not primarily about fasting. Or abstaining. Or dryness. Or doing without.
To be sure, it involves these indispensible things, but it does so as health involves
exercise. If we live only for fasting we are as wrongheaded as a health nut who
lives only for running.
But if we remember that the real goal of both
Lent and health is life, love, and union with God and neighbor in the Passion
and Resurrection of Christ, we are free to join Jesus in the desert and find,
through him, with him and in him, the gift of life for others — and for
Shea. "The Gift of Lent." CatholicExchange.com (February 13, 2002).
Shea is Senior Content Editor for Catholic Exchange. You may visit his website
at www.mark-shea.com or check out his blog,
Catholic and Enjoying It!. Mark
is the author of Making Senses
Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible as the First Christians Did (Basilica),
By What Authority?: An Evangelical
Discovers Catholic Tradition (Our Sunday Visitor), and This
Is My Body: An Evangelical Discovers the Real Presence (Christendom).
© 2002 Catholicexchange.com