Unfortunately I didn’t take the time with God to work out the post I was planning this week. After Ash Wednesday, God and I became busy working on many other issues I needed to address. Finally last night God smacked me and said “hey dummy… since you are busy with your Lenten discipline why not talk about Lenten disciplines?”
I was a little hesitant on that topic. Remember I’m a convert. So if I am going to talk about liturgical discipline, I better get something out of the way first off. CATHOLICS ARE WEIRD!
In the short time I have been attending Catholic Mass, I have encountered not only a special liturgical color and diet, but Lent also has its own devotional guides, book clubs, retreats, prayer vigils, blogs, family crafts even (at least one) Lenten cruise. That is, before you even consider the never ending diversity of individual Lenten devotions.
How do you decide if you are giving up chocolate or coffee or TV or Facebook? Those are just some of the standards this year. I know Catholic friends who are keeping gratitude journals, making devotions to Mary, even preparing special care packages they are keeping with them to hand out to the homeless. Maybe everyone else is just afraid to ask. So while I can still plead “convert”, let me do it. What is all of this fuss about anyway?
“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. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.”
OK, sure I remember now, Jesus spent 40 days fasting and being tempted in the desert before starting his public ministry. So, what is all of this fuss about anyway? I’ve had a few years now to scratch my head and contemplate this therefore I am completely unqualified to answer, but here are my reflections anyway.
Lent is part of a great story but it is not the whole story. Jesus’ journey into the wilderness was the last step before his public ministry. Certainly resisting the devil is laudable but ultimately what did it accomplish? Because if you have forgotten this is how it ended- “And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.” Luke 4:13
So the devils wasn’t defeated and he hadn’t given up, he was just going to wait around and try it all again. My favorite spiritual guru, Fr. Richard Rohr, claims that what Jesus really accomplished was learning something about himself.
Specifically, Jesus learned he was the favored Son of the Father. He also learned the Son of a God beats temptation every time. But if that were the whole story, Jesus wouldn’t have accomplished anything. Jesus had to respond to this Revelation before the world could shout Alleluia! This is the truth about our 40 days in the wilderness as well. Spending time in temptation can teach us something about Jesus. During Lent we should listen for that. This message may even be a powerful conversion for some of us, but Lent is only the beginning of the story.
To understand Lent we must understand the whole liturgical story. Sometimes I like to compare the Liturgical seasons to the natural seasons. Imagine your spirit is a tree, Lent is like the Autumn. In the Autumn your tree displays all the gifts the sun has given it in a beautiful array of colors and then it lets them go. In the spring the Sun will pour more love on your little tree so it will grow bigger and hold even more abundant gifts and bear even more precious fruit. Why does the tree return its gifts every Autumn? Does the sun no longer think the tree deserves its leaves? No, the tree must let go of its attachments so it can be filled again with the abundant life of the sun. If the tree is greedy with what the sun had given it, there would be no where for the new leaves go.
In a nutshell, I think that is what Lent is about. We let go of some of the blessings God has given us so that we are unburdened and free in Easter when God will overfill us with new life. Just like the tree changes colors before the leaves fall, it is wise to take a moment and celebrate the goodness of God that we are letting go.
While we are speaking of letting go…
Most ‘Penance’ isn’t giving up things that make us happy, it is letting go of things that make us miserable. Somewhere out there I can hear a Catholic griping, “Chocolate doesn’t make me miserable!” Well, no it doesn’t. In fact almost every “penance” we perform is giving up something that is good. No, better than good. Whether we give up wine, coffee, or Facebook, we should remember this abundance is a gift from God that many of our brothers and sisters do not share. While these things are all good, our attachment to them is something else entirely.
In fact, false attachment is the root of nearly every sin we pay penance for in Lent. Wealth is a blessing from God – greed is an excess attachment to wealth. Sex is a gift from God -lust is the disordered attachment to sex. Wrath is a excess attachment to justice – pride excess attachment to self. All these attachments are making us miserable.
I know a thing or two about misery. It was not long before I became Catholic that I suffered from a long depression. I will never forget one particularly instructive session with my counselor. I just finished making a very detailed complaint about my life that ended with “…I just don’t think I’m good enough!” My counselor gave me a knowing look and said “What’s enough?” In my heart, I just wanted to be a good person. That is a good desire, but my pride was the excess attachment to an unachievable aspiration for myself. That was making me miserable.
What is enough? Isn’t that always the problem? How much is enough chocolate to make you happy? When will you have everything to meet all your needs? The truth is you have everything you ever need to make you happy but it will never be ‘enough’. That is why our spirit needs these 40 days of letting go. Its part of the never ending process of lowering our ‘enough’ so we can live fully in Gods abundance.
But be warned that…
There is evil in the wilderness that you can’t fight alone. There is a part of the Lenten story that ought to make you feel uneasy. This story has only two characters one is Jesus and the other… We don’t like to talk about Satan very much, do we? But there are a couple times in Scripture when Satan just walks up to say hello, whether we were talking about him or not. Lent is one of those times. I can’t imagine Jesus went into the wilderness looking to be tempted. I mean this is the same Christ that taught us to pray “Father lead me not into temptation,” but the Spirit lead him into the wilderness anyway, and lo and behold, temptation was waiting.
Satan knows a good opportunity when he sees it. The devil obviously doesn’t want anyone to actually succeed in becoming unattached to less miserable. You bet our nemesis will be waiting for us this Lent as well. Why the hell did I have to remind you of that?!? For the same reason the Gospel does, I think. To remind you the on of God is greater than sin, but only the Son of God is greater than sin. This is a powerful spiritual force and your will power won’t cut it. How does the old saying go? Fight fire with fire. Fight a powerful spiritual force with a holy spiritual force. In fact, let the Holy Spirit do all the fighting. If you try to force your way through some great noble sacrifice, you will become prideful and you will most probably fail. If in humility you let the Spirit guide you, the devil will do you no harm.
My challenge to you this Lent is not to be confused by all of the weird rules of Lent. Prayerfully reflect on Jesus’ journey into the wilderness and let it be the model for your journey through this Lenten season. With God’s help, this season can be just the renewal your spirit needs.
One more thing….
While previous bloggers have already pointed out there is no award for who biggest Lenten sacrifice. If the Diocese of Austin did have such a thing… I would have to (at least) nominate Heather Gardner and Abby Johnson and all the leaders of the Austin Coalition for Life for basically giving up their good nights sleep to make sure the 40 Days for Life Prayer Vigil is successful as possible.
And they still need your help! The first week of the Vigil has just about come and gone but there are still red spots (missing volunteers) on the 40 Days schedule. So please if you have not done so already, please prayerfully consider taking this time to turn it Green!