A normal Lent for American Catholics is drenched in petty personal piety and nonsensical “sacrifice” like giving up chewing gum and going to confession to seek forgiveness for getting wasted at last summer’s Fourth of July party.
Lent, American style, has very little to do with the blood-drenched Passion of Our Lord, and even less to do with the reality that the world around us is a butcher shop.
We Americans are, on the surface at least, a privileged people. We live behind massive walls of force, both economic and military, that keep us safe from the butcher shop world. We are free to throw tantrums, indulge our inner divas, and generally do whatever we want. We are so free that it boggles people from other places. We can literally do anything we want, anytime we want, and so long as we do not break the law, the only consequences are the ill health, ruptured relationships, and tattered finances we bring on ourselves.
Lent has, for us, become a performative exercise in going through the motions. From the imposition of ashes — which we seem to love — to the Friday night dinners where we participate in the Stations of the Cross, to the Holy Week masses in which we re-enact the torture and murder of our innocent God, we go through the motions and never touch the hard reality of what it means for most of humanity to live in this butcher shop world.
The horrors of life in a totalitarian world do not exist in the American imagination. The idea that the government could be so dangerous as to send soldiers to arrest a blameless man at prayer and in one 24-hour period, put him on “trial” which is no trial but a bunch of unsubstantiated accusations about the nothing much of violating religious rules, torture, mock, almost beat Him to death and then drag him through the streets and kill Him in a slow, torturous fashion on a hill while crowds watch and jeer is unfathomable to Americans.
We don’t believe it. Not really. We certainly don’t see it as a possibility for us.
In our world, the government is on a leash of Constitutional limits and We the People can rise up and change our leaders if they displease us. We are the government. And government would not dare to treat us in such a fashion. That is the reality of American existence, and the limit of American imagining when it comes to government.
Americans are not afraid.
It’s as simple as that.
Americans are so unafraid that they cannot comprehend fear of government. It makes no sense to them.
What is dangerous is that Americans have also become people who do not believe that their freedom from fear is in fact the fragile state of being that it is. The way of the world is not American freedom. The way of the world is the Way of the Cross. The way of the world is to be afraid, very afraid, of one’s government, and with good reason.
Americans have lost the awe and respect they should have for America.
Lent is, even for the most religious among us, a performative doo-dah, a going through the motions. It does not teach us the cold reality of the price that Jesus paid for us to be free of the curse of sin and death.
Performative Lent is perhaps a natural outgrowth of living free, safe, fed lives, whose only focus is our own self. The deepest truth about Americans is that most of us, including those who claim to be religious, have no meaning or purpose in our lives. Most Americans live lives focused only on what they can do to please and amuse themselves. That is their measure for everything they do and support.
American indifference to the hard realities of this world and the Passion of Our Lord is a symptom of a mass illusion that ignores the fact that all is not as it seems. Performative Lent feeds that illusion. It ignores the desperation, psychological chaos and alienation that lies just below the surface of our American life.
For all our freedoms, and all our relative safety from government excess or attack by a foreign power, we are a desperate and angry people. Freedom to the degree that we have it can become aimless wandering and lostness if there is no vision, meaning or purpose to our lives.
Younger generations of Americans are adrift in the guidepost-free vastness of American freedom without the moorings of genuine faith and stable family. At the same time, they are facing the economic devastation that 40 years of the transfer of America’s wealth into the hands of a few billionaires has wrought. They need the meaning and purpose that genuine life in Christ gives to hold them together and raise them out of the mire of meaningless and enraged anomie that is fast becoming the ethos of our culture.
Lent in this time of politicized Christianity and growing desperation is a performative thing, a show for the numbed. It avoids the meaning of what Jesus did for us, and the raw ugliness of the price He paid.
Performative Lent and Easter Bunny Resurrection have no transformative, sustaining power. They tame Jesus and the message of the cross into a pretty tale and use that to sleep-walk people past the meaning of Who our God is and What He Calls us to do. They teach a meaningless Christianity that has no Cross.
Lent in America is a set piece performed for and by the privileged pious remnants of a dying middle class. The angry, desperate, alienated larger society is neither moved nor transformed by it because a politicized phony Jesus giving us an Easter bunny resurrection is not God.
The Passion of Christ is transformative precisely because it is real. It is not about satin-clad priests waving incense censers in front of granite altars and gold crucifixes. It is about the sharp unsettling smell of human blood and bodily wastes. It is about humiliation so raw that it denies the humanity of humanity. It is about proud priests and corrupt politicians who can murder innocence with neither shame nor regret.
What Jesus did — what He does — is teach us that He is One with those who suffer most.
The Passion of our Lord has nothing — and I mean nothing — to do with the tamed and meaningless Christ of contemporary American Christianity. It is the antithesis of the ignorant, superstitious, hate-filled christ of right-wing political christianity.
By the same token, there is nothing performative about the desperation, alienation and savage sense of hopelessness that is growing with a compounding force in much of American culture today.
The message of the Cross, the meaning of the Passion, the reality of the blood, gore, humiliation and aloneness of what Jesus suffered, is right there in front of us.
Jesus is One with the alienated, lonely, lost desperate Americans who are losing both themselves and their country in the surfeit of counterfeit diversions and yawning lack of meaning of their existences. Their lives have no meaning, no purpose, no hope. For all their worry about “self-esteem” they have no self-respect.
Performative Lent and Easter Bunny Resurrection have no power to save us from the devils of our time. What people need and are not getting from their religious leaders is the message of the Cross and their own unique and personal participation in Christ’s sacrifice.
The Church and God’s people are both called to be about more than themselves. Lent is about more than giving up chewing gum for forty days, eating fish on Fridays and going through a routine confession.
Lent is a journey through the transformative experience of death, ultimate death, all death, voluntary sacrificial death to the reality of life, all life, eternal life, transformed fearless life of the living waters that flowed from Jesus’ side at its conclusion.
Christ’s Passion is not a theatrical event. It is a real life demonstration of the low regard powerful people, including clergy, have for powerless people. It is also a real life demonstration of the high regard that God has for those same powerless ones.
The Passion of Our Lord brings Jesus — God — into oneness with the desperate, despairing, alienated, lonely, confused, exploited, angry people standing outside the gate of the Church. Jesus isn’t one answer among others for what ails them. He is the answer.
But that answer is not about performative Lent and Easter bunny resurrection. It is not about false, politicized Christianity without the Cross. That can not and will not save anyone.
The answer is the thing that performative Lent and Easter bunny resurrection, politicized christianity and wing-nut Jesus deny. The answer is the bloody, naked, mocked, shamed, beaten, tortured, helpless, humiliated Son of Man Who is the I Am in wholly human form. The answer is our Passover Lamb, Who is sacrificed for us.
There is nothing pretty or acceptable about the crucifixion. That is its power and its meaning.
Lent isn’t about getting yourself spiritually spiffed and shined. Lent is about knowing the crucifixion of Christ for what it is. It is finding that when you are at your most lost, that is when the Christ Who suffers is One with you.
That and nothing else — nothing less — is your dignity.