When I started to write this, the sun was still setting on Ash Wednesday. The Lenten season had officially begun. I didn’t know until the sun rose that morning what it was God really wanted me to write about. While my more experienced cohorts in the ACNM were suggesting that people would naturally be looking for Lent related articles, I was still in a Fat Tuesday frame of mind.
My father came into town on Monday. Without mothers or girlfriends around to protest, I discerned that God wanted us to visit the Flying Saucer (famous for its wide beer selection) and search for the illusive better beer. We took tips from the waitress. We might have had too much. We talked about sports, life, and politics – it was a truly blessed occasion.
Tuesday morning on Facebook my friends were amusing themselves by discussing which would be the greater sacrifice, to give up all beer, or to drink nothing but beer, this Lenten season. That made me laugh a little. On Ash Wednesday a friend earnestly suggested that it isn’t right to give up “good” things for Lent, but only the “bad” things that keep us from God. Chocolate, meat, and beer, these he suggested were the “bad” things. That, my fellow Catholics, was when it became clear. Gather ‘round, my friends, and listen carefully. This Lenten season we need to have a conversation about booze!
First of all, I’ll come right out and say it, “Booze is a good thing!” There has always been a subset of religious folk who has disagreed with that. Booze leads to drunkenness – drunkenness leads to sin. Christians should avoid that occasion for sin altogether. That opinion has been around since Jesus’ day, and Jesus had something to say about it.
“They said to him, ‘John’s disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking.’ Jesus answered, ‘Can you make the friends of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast.”
-Luke 5: 33-34
Jesus was into eating and drinking. He wanted his disciples to throw big feasts and banquets. The Jewish leadership chastised Jesus because they thought he partied too much. Jesus chastised his followers because their parties weren’t big enough. He instructed his disciples to invite more people. Jesus wanted his disciples to drink with people who couldn’t pay them back. Jesus wanted his disciples to drink with the poor and the destitute. Jesus wanted his disciples to drink with sinners and outcasts. Jesus wanted his disciples to drink with the people who persecuted them.
In the Gospel of John Jesus’ first miracle was to make sure the banquet never ran out of wine. How is that parable for Christian discipleship! We bring everyone to the party, and God provides the drinks! That is why the Catholic church has so many feast days–because feasting is a good thing. But then Lent came, and the feasting stopped…
At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.
– Mark 1: 12-13
The easiest answer for “Why Lent?” is because Jesus did it. We give up these good things so we can share in Christ’s suffering in the wilderness. Jesus
did it is a sufficient enough fact to validate a spiritual practice. But doesn’t that just beg the question, why did Jesus do it? Was the Holy Spirit’s ultimate goal for Jesus to suffer? Is the Trinity possessed by some thinly veiled masochism?
No. Since we have read the rest of the gospel, we know the Holy Spirit was setting the table for the greatest feast of all.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner. My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.”
– Mathew 22:2-4
Everything we give up during Lent is only a dim reflection of the true feast being set in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus wants us to share in these blessings so we can joyfully point to what is to come. But we must not be content with the passing pleasures of earth. We need to be preparing ourselves for the banquet that is to come. Jesus made it clear that while everyone was invited to the great banquet, getting in wasn’t going to be easy.
For Jesus the great banquet required his own blood and flesh to be offered on the cross. In the wilderness Satan suggested that Jesus concentrate on his own needs: “Just turn these rocks into bread.” Jesus refused. In the wilderness Satan suggested that Jesus seek easy pain- free spiritual consolation: “Just make the angels save you.” Jesus refused. Finally, Satan offered all the worldly political power to corrupt Jesus: “Just worship me and all of this is yours.” Jesus refused. Jesus had to offer his blood and flesh. Christ’s suffering was nonnegotiable.
Sometimes during ordinary times it’s easy for us to forget this part of the message. A wise nun once told me, “Everyone wants salvation. No one wants the cross.” But for anyone to serve in the kingdom, he must pick up his cross and follow Him. And anyone who chooses the cross must face the trials of Lent.
There will come a time for all Christian disciples when they must put aside their own needs to remember the needs of others. There will come a time for all Christian disciples when they will decide to seek a safe and comfortable spirituality or an authentic and dangerous life of faith. There will come a time for all Christian disciples when the powers of the earth will try to corrupt us. If we are going to reach salvation, we will have to carry our crosses. Our suffering is a nonnegotiable part of an authentic life of faith.
Jesus prepared himself for his trials by first separating himself from his worldly desires in the wilderness. During Lent we make small sacrifices and pray to prepare ourselves to take up our own crosses.
I have heard it said that this makes Lent a holier part of the Catholic calendar. I have heard it said that if we wanted to be truly Christ- like, we would make our Lenten sacrifices year round. This thinking bothers me. The entire Catholic calendar is holy. Christ feasted at the wedding of Cana. Christ fasted for forty days in the wilderness. Both fasting and feasting bring us closer to the Lord.
What will pull us away from Christ is to become stuck in either feasting or fasting. If we experience our spirituality only by feasting, then we will let our good drink and good food take the place of Christ himself. We will grow complacent and forget those on the outside who need to be invited to the banquet. We will grow tired and drunk, and the great feast will cease to satisfy us. We will continue to go through the motions, but we will soon stop having fun.
On the other hand, if we submit ourselves to perpetual fasting, we will be passing up the gifts the Spirit intends for us to enjoy today. We will not be opening out hearts to the God of Joy, the God of beauty, the Lord of the Dance. We will be bringing to the world a harsh ascetic history, not the good news of the risen Lord. We will not be living in the reality that the battle is won, the great banquet is at hand.
This is why the wisdom of the church has divided the liturgical year into spiritual seasons. The spirit is a living thing, and living things need life cycles to grow. We will not bear fruit in the spring if we do not let our dead leaves fall away in the autumn. So yes, the season of Lent is upon us. In this season we must let go of good things. In this season we must fight against the temptations of the evil. In this season we will suffer. But remember, my brethren, we do all this because a great banquet is being prepared. My challenge to you this Lent is to focus your prayers and your desires on the more perfect banquet we have waiting for us!