When God, in the beginning, created man, he made him subject to his own free choice. If you choose you can keep the commandments; it is loyalty to do his will. There are set before you fire and water; to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand. Before man are life and death, whichever he chooses shall be given him.
— Sirach 15:14-17
Read in conjunction with this, and in light of all of my pathetic failings of which I moan to God in prayer, it occurs to me that I’ve spent my whole life looking incorrectly at the sacrifices and disciplines of Lent. I’ve thought of it all as saying “no.” No, I can’t have the snack, because it’s Lent; no, I can’t blow off daily mass because it’s Lent; no, I can’t argue with that guy on Facebook because I gave it up for Lent.
It’s all so much “no”; how can that be relevant to the God who is all “Yes”.
I think as a church we’ve been tracking the “yes” of God for a while; building on Isaiah 58:7-9, recent decades have centered more on “taking positive action” in Lent — volunteering; parking farther from the store entrances, increasing habitual almsgiving — and that’s all good stuff.
It is good to “do.”
Still, I wonder if we’ve given short-shrift to traditional ideas of sacrifice, and the very difficult work of not simply “doing” but “being.”
Perhaps because we are such a practical society, we perceive “positive” activity as inherently more valuable: it is productive, upbeat and busy, rather than quiet and passive. Or perhaps we simply find that the latter — the old-fashioned sacrifice and powering down — is difficult and when something is difficult and we fail, we feel bad about ourselves. And we can’t have that now, can we?
But to over-accent-u-ate the positive in Lent distorts our understanding a bit; it re-inforces this notion of sacrifice-as-negative, built upon “no,” on saying “I can’t” instead of “I can.”
Our sacrifices are never meant to be about “no” or “don’t” or “I mustn’t.” They’re supposed to be “yes.” “Yes, I surrender/ submit/give up that thing for God; yes, I can offer this temptation up.”
It’s not a turning-from, with suffering and self-absorption; it’s a turning-to with hands full, in offering.
If we think about that image, we see hospitality, and when we are being hospitable, we are making welcome; we are asserting our right and authority to do that by paradoxically surrendering ourselves into servitude, however temporary. This is a profound and personal sort of “yes”.
We’re fasting? Well the fast is not the negative, “I can’t have,” but rather the positive, “Why don’t you have this? It’s yummy! I am so happy to offer it to you.”
When I am hosting guests in my home nothing pleases me more than to share the recipes I love with them, or to pour their wine into my best crystal, even though I usually never eat my own meal while I’m serving and I’m sometimes left to drink the wine from a jelly glass. It’s worth it, for the satisfied feeling that comes with knowing I’ve made my guests happy.
Seen in this way, we realize that a sacrifice or a fast deprives us of nothing — it fills us in a different way, a way that prompts us to approach the constant “yes” of God with a “yes” of our own. That can only lead to understanding “yes” as an interaction full of power and subtlety.
Perhaps this is why Christ tell us not to look glum-faced when we are fasting; rather we should perhaps look assured, and if we are assured, then satiated, and glad.
I have been looking at Lent all wrong. And not just Lent, but many other challenges in my life. I haven’t understood until now that I have been refused nothing — and only asked to prepare, make welcome and enter in to something great.
Such a thick-head, I am! No wonder my Lents have always hit snags and my self-improvement projects always go flop! A challenge received and understood as “no” on top of “no” will go nowhere.
And “yes” goes where God goes. Everywhere.