OK people, simmer down. Give a brother a moment to explain. If all Lent has become for you is not eating ice cream for forty days then I do say, why bother? Lent is so much more and unless you buy into the whole enchilada (unless you gave them up for lent) you shouldn’t bother.
Lent is all about change and preparation. Change in the deepest parts of our soul; change that you can see; change that you (and others can) feel. And most importantly change that you want. Preparation for the celebration of the greatest gift anyone could ever want. Preparing ourselves for the commemoration of the day in which God said to all of His children, ‘I love you more than you can ever imagine, so much so that I am willing to lay down my life so that you may live!’
So if we are going to participate in this Lenten season (and we should) then let’s do it the way it should be done – all the way and fully committed. Let it surround you and get inside of you like the Christmas spirit that seems to show up every year right after Thanksgiving. I’m trying and began this Lent by seeking to learn a little more about the season hoping it would help. Mostly because, as with most traditions, there is likelihood that over time we forget how these traditions may have started and why. We even may forget what the purpose may have been for the initiation of the tradition. Of course there is a ton of information on the web that can give you all of the history and meaning of Lent, one in particular is provided here in a form of a link (http://www.catholiceducation.org/en/culture/catholic-contributions/history-of-lent.html) and does a great job in doing so.
As I said, my main concern regarding Lent is our tendency to reduce this opportunity to grow in our faith to simple one-liners. With Lent it is normally, ‘What are you giving up for Lent?’ Over the past 20 centuries we have taken this solemn period of change and preparation and condensed it down to avoiding sweets, or some other daily indulgence. Even worse, without any understanding of what our true intentions are. I am as guilty as anyone. Why are we giving up ice cream for 40 days, and how does that fit into our Christian faith? It’s not like the founders of Christianity woke up one day and determined that giving up ice cream for 40 days was going to make us better Christians. Well, not exactly.
Jesus was a Jew. A lot of our Christian faith and tradition is rooted in Judaism. There is a long and continuing history of man losing focus on God and God’s will, the early stages of which are described in great detail in the Old Testament. God’s chosen people were seemingly stuck in this cycle of sin, slavery due to their sin, begging God for help, salvation through God’s mercy, and then ultimately back to sin. To this very day this endless cycle of sin, sorrow, supplication, salvation, silence, and sin again is driven by our human weakness and our inability to say no to temptation. (I don’t make this stuff up people – it’s right there in the Bible.) Jesus in preparation for the start of his ministry goes into the wilderness to fast and pray, not coincidentally, for 40 days. There he is continually tempted by satan, the most well known account of which is in Matt 4:1-11. The point here being that sin takes our focus from God, and Lent is our time to regain our focus through prayer, fasting and alms-giving. These activities are the antithesis to root causes of all sin – pride, lust, and greed. (Check out this link for more on this – http://truthandcharity.net/the-origins-of-prayer-fasting-and-almsgiving/). So especially during Lent we should be using this holy formula as part of our preparation regimen:
- We pray to acknowledge God and our own weakness – this knocks our pride down to size
- We fast to deny our lustful desires – just to prove that we can
- We give alms to focus on the needs of others – and take our focus from our own petty wish list
So again, why is then does it seem that our attention during Lent apparently on this fasting part, and all of the (IMO) silly rules as to how we conduct our dietary intake? My guess is that over the past 2000 years the church leaders determined that the common folk would understand the fasting part best because it could be codified into rules and rules were good. You Catholics out there get this, right? Sort of like: no meat on Fridays, Holy Days of Obligation, and sitting, standing and kneeling during mass. I attend a particular (catholic) church because of its mission and work being done there, not because it is good at following the rules. We all have to be careful not to lose sight of that: Give up the ice cream, but ignore the homeless. Avoid meat on Friday, but pray only when we want something. Dear Lord please help us to keep our focus on what you really want for your children – to become true offspring of yours in every way that relationship brings!
One last thought. From what I understand, in the Hebrew language, numbers have both numerical and literal meanings; seven is a divine number, for instance. Forty is used to describe a period of time that is long enough to enable a change, or a testing period. Moses was on the Mount Sinai for 40 days prior to receiving the Ten Commandments, the Jews wandered the desert for 40 years, God made it rain for 40 days and nights during the Great Flood, Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days, all in advance of some monumental change. Quite apparently, God wants us to change! I pray that these next 40 days of praying, fasting and giving do so for you and me.