The Great Fast is almost here.
For the Latin church, Lent will begin on March First this year.
I’m still trying to figure out when the Fast begins for the Eastern Church. I know that last Sunday was “Sunday of Meatfare” and next Sunday is “Sunday of Cheesefare” and as far as I can tell, we begin Lent Sunday evening after vespers– so, the twenty-sixth of February, sometime after dark. I am notoriously easily confused about times and seasons. At least I don’t have to get as muddled as I got with Advent and Christmas, because by a fun coincidence I can’t understand either, the Julian calendar’s Lent and Easter happen on the same days as the new calendar’s this year. All of us in the East will repent of our sins, seek mercy, fast, pray, commemorate the death of Christ and celebrate Pascha together. And the Latins will join us for Lent a couple days late but cross the finish line with us at Easter. I may be bad at math but I don’t need math to know that that’s awesome.
So, what are you doing for Lent?
I don’t like to talk about “What are you giving up for Lent?” because in my experience it puts me in the wrong head space. As if the spiritual life was primarily about getting rid of stuff instead of about being filled. Of course, you have to give things up in order to be filled; only the hungry can be filled with good things. The rich are always sent away empty, not because God hates the rich but because the rich have no room. But I’ve found that, for me, “giving things up” can lead to filling myself with more things that aren’t of God.
I decide, for example, that I’m going to give up chocolate– not just the good chocolate, but the crappy chocolate as well. No candy, no chocolate milk, no chocolate-covered granola bars. I clean out the cupboards and stuff all the chocolate in the freezer. It goes well for a few days. Then I start to crack. I dream about chocolate and wake up feeling guilty. I eat vanilla pudding to take my mind off things, but it doesn’t work because vanilla only exists to enhance chocolate cravings. I read magazine articles telling you to spread prunes with peanut butter to take the place of junk food, and cry. I look at the calendar, and both revel in my will power keeping it up so long and despair at the realization that there are five weeks to go. I stay away from the candy section at Kroger. I close my eyes in the freezer section at Aldi, because the seasonal chocolates imported from Germany are right across the aisle. I sneak a piece of chocolate on Holy Thursday on the excuse that it’s not Lent anymore, it’s triduum (I was Latin Catholic at the time). Then, on the way home from Easter liturgy, I stick my face in a bag of Cadbury eggs.
And when I get to the bottom of the bag, I realize that I spent all of Lent meditating on chocolate rather than Christ. I pridefully relied on my own willpower to impress God, rather than leaning on God and begging for the virtues I lack. And here it is Easter, and instead of wondering at the Resurrection of the Lord I’m wondering at how chocolate is even tastier than I remembered, right up until it makes me sick.
And so I’ve learned that penance doesn’t just mean giving something up. Penance means turning around. It means turning your gaze away from the idol and onto the icon– directing myself away from the object I’ve valued too much or in the wrong way, not to stare pointlessly into space but to set my sight on the Lord. Not to empty myself except in such a way that I’m filled with good things.
So, what are you doing for Lent?
Maybe you could give up dessert, but instead of just giving up dessert you could use that few minutes after dinner to pray Vespers or part of Vespers. Maybe you should give up social media for a certain block of time in the afternoon, not so that you can sit around thinking about it but so that you can pray the Rosary and call your grandmother. Maybe you could resolve to go to daily Mass whenever possible– or, if you already do, to read the readings ahead of time so that you can meditate on them. Maybe your whole penance should be making sure to get to confession, no matter how annoying your church’s schedule is. Maybe there’s some volunteer work you’ve always wanted to sign up for, but you keep putting it off. Now’s a great time.
As for myself, I’m going to try to write meditations on the Way of the Cross, one station at a time, every Wednesday and Friday until the end of Lent. Knowing me, I’ll forget and panic and post three late meditations one Saturday, but the plan is Wednesday and Friday. You guys can check in here and keep me honest if you would.
What are you doing for Lent?
Make sure it’s in the spirit of true repentance, instead of just making yourself uncomfortable.
(image via pixabay)