What are you doing for Lent?
The question is on most of our minds, with more or less grudging, whether due to our own awareness or because our priests and friends and mothers have been asking us of late. As a Catholic convert, the concept of Lent was rather nebulous when I entered the Church at 14, but I *knew* it had to do with fasting and giving things up.
As I grew in my faith, I have had a range of experiences with Lent. There was the year I gave up all meat and all carbs, lost way too much weight, and had a priest basically tell me “that’s absurd and damaging to your health.” There was the year I failed terribly at giving up sweets and praying my rosary and had the least productive Lent ever. There was the year I gave up complaining and it lasted about three hours. There was the year I started praying the Divine Office.
Over the years, it continues to become clearer and clearer to me that Lent cannot simply be about giving something up.
Rather, Lent requires that I encounter reality. That I consider how my own life is uniquely and particularly limited, whether by state of life or even simply by physical health, all the while know that that I, today, am the one called to know and love God. Lent is about accepting that reality I live in today; making my life the starting point for my sacrifices, because only I, now, with all the limits I have, can come to know and love God more.
In his excellent work Jesus of Nazareth, Josef Cardinal Ratzinger (aka Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) identifies the great question at the heart of the entire book:
What did Jesus actually bring, if not world peace, universal prosperity, and a better world? What has he brought?
In a way, the sacrificial and penitential season of Lent allows each of us to live out the answer to that very question. When I consider what to do for Lent, when I consider giving up this thing or building that habit, I am seeking to live a life which asks “if not for these things in my life that I want, if not for ordering my time and activities as I want, if not for the many things I could be #blessed in having, then what did you come to bring us?”
Because, I’m going to be honest: I never knew how much I liked sweets, even as an adult, until I attempted to give them up, and watched my mind focus way too much on wanting them for the first few weeks. I never knew the idealistic approach I can have to reality, the dangers of jumping in without considering things like body mass and nutritional needs, before a priest told me to stop being foolish and eat protein. I never knew how much time I wasted not praying or doing anything else remotely useful until I challenged myself to sacrifice that time to God. I never realized how often I put God last, until I made the smallest effort to put Him first.
Every Lent, I have failed in some way at keeping my fast or keeping the new practices I intended to take up.
Those failures are often my life living out Cardinal Ratzinger’s question, particularly when I find myself asking:
What did Jesus actually bring? Because in attempting to follow Him, I’m giving up time, I’m giving up money, I’m giving up eating and drinking what I want when I want, I’m giving up choices in what I listen to or read, heck, I’m even giving up way too ambitious sacrifices. And, because I suck at all that, I’m now feeling guilty about all these limits. So what’s the whole point? What are You actually doing? And the world still kind of sucks. So what was the point? Why did You become Incarnate? What was so important that You had to become Man to bring it? What did you bring, in the end?
God. He has brought God. He has brought the God who formerly unveiled his countenance gradually, first to Abraham, then to Moses and the Prophets, and then in the Wisdom Literature—the God who revealed his face only in Israel, even though he was also honored among the pagans in various shadowy guises. It is this God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the true God, whom he has brought to the nations of the earth.
He has brought God, and now we know his face, now we can call upon him. Now we know the path that we human beings have to take in this world. Jesus has brought God and with God the truth about our origin and destiny: faith, hope, and love. It is only because of our hardness of heart that we think this is too little. Yes indeed, God’s power works quietly in this world, but it is the true and lasting power. Again and again, God’s cause seems to be in its death throes. Yet over and over again it proves to be the thing that truly endures and saves. The earthly kingdoms that Satan was able to put before the Lord at [the time of his temptation] have all passed away. Their glory, their doxa, has proven to be a mere semblance. But the glory of Christ, the humble, self-sacrificing glory of his love, has not passed away, nor will it ever do so.
Every Lent, it’s easy for me to focus on the sacrifices, and how much they suck, or how awesome they will be in the hypothetical future where I’m totally a saint and also don’t watch Netflix. However, to conflate the point of the Lenten season with the sacrifices and penances is to mistake the sign and the map for the destination.
The point of Lent is that Jesus brought God.
Yet, in the many good things (and not so good things) we have, and in the many good ways (and not so good ways) we spend our time, it is far too easy to become distracted and miss that. Lent is an opportunity for all the members of the Church to let go, even of those things that are good, in order to realize that Jesus has brought God, and in bringing God, he has brought us the opportunity to love and be loved beyond our wildest expectations.
So, whatever you are doing for Lent, don’t lose sight of the purpose behind the sacrifice or habit. Even when you really want to watch Netflix. Even for just an hour. Even because it was a long day. Even because Matt Murdoch’s abs. View the frustration of the sacrifice as a gift. Because, by calling us to sacrifice and penance in this season, the Church gives us an opportunity to fight against the sins that pull us away from loving God, to create the habits that allow us to love God more. Lent is ultimately not about the fasting and sacrifice; ultimately the purpose of Lent is to help us learn that “God is God, that God is man’s true Good.”