Welcome to Lent
Lent is upon us. As probably everyone knows, it is one of the two penitential seasons set aside by the Church for spiritual renewal – the other being Advent. Now that the storm season is over in the Washington area (at least, I hope and pray it is over), I will be providing you with essays on the Mass readings for each Sunday. I won’t provide you with Ash Wednesday reflections, however, since I never attend Ash Wednesday services. The reason I do this is that one of the three readings in the cycle says that when we fast, we comb our hair and do not put ashes on our foreheads to draw attention to ourselves. You can usually tell the practicing Catholics at work because they have smudged foreheads. This makes the custom of ashes a nice expression of cultural solidarity, but doing so negates any real spiritual value.
It is worth noting here that the Church has used Lent for more than just spiritual purposes. When most of Europe was starving during the period of minor glaciations from the twelfth centuries to the mid-nineteenth century (global warming is likely a good thing by comparison to that period), food was scarce – especially when agriculture was mostly about growing cereal grains, which were prone to famine in bad years – and there were many bad years. A Lenten fast made sense in those years, since failure to do so would lead to Mass starvation. Life was less compartmentalized then, so the line between everyday life and religion was less bright. Indeed, for much of that period the Church was the prominent institution in people’s lives. Abstaining from meat on Fridays (now in Lent, but formerly year round) was also economic at the behest of Italian fishermen. The penitential meaning was an ad-on.
Penance is essential for most people, although not for the reason you think. In modern times, most people are fairly comfortable. Indeed, they are so comfortable, it is hard for them to cultivate poverty of spirit – which is considered blessed. This is especially the case in modern America, and most especially in this area, which is economically well of and politically powerful. While some people, through addictions or other personal tragedy, experience poverty in spirit in due course, most do not. Lent allows them to feel the pain that their lives don’t otherwise grant them. This type of pain is essential for spiritual development in much the same way that alcoholics must first hit bottom before going on to lead recovered and spiritual lives.
This is in contrast to other interpretations of Lent and suffering, which imply that God needs us to suffer for his own purposes or to pay off some spiritual debt. This is really not the case. If God needed something from us, He would not really be God. I reject such a codependent deity. Lent is for us to get out of our comfort zone and get into service to someone besides ourselves. As such, Lent is actually a progressive enterprise. Indeed, unlike those in recovery from addiction, if you are in a Church with a social policy, which the Catholic Church is and remains (especially with the promulgation of Caritas in Veritate), you have a special responsibility to bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth. In these times the need is great. To see the need, one must become poor in spirit - and to do that, the practice of Lent is essential. Therefore, I say to all of you, have a blessed Lent.