Many of my Protestant friends don’t like Lent. “It’s all about mortification and self-discipline when we know that the risen Jesus is joyful and alive!” they say. “We don’t need to mortify ourselves to please God. And what’s with a ‘holy season’ when Paul says in Colossians 2:16–17 that we shouldn’t observe any day as special?”
Let’s begin with this last objection first. Consider how we behave in all the areas of life we don’t stick in the religion bin for special treatment. We observe birthdays and anniversaries, for instance. Are we denying God’s word in doing so? Or are we simply doing what all humans do when they have occasion to celebrate or honor something? The fact is, a basic human way of honoring and loving something is to set aside a span of time for it. So we have story times for our kids and romantic times with our spouses — and quiet times with God.
Lent is a 40-day quiet time in which we are called to focus on the sufferings of Jesus. Lent calls us to attend carefully to the Christ who denies himself for our sakes, goes into the wilderness and confronts evil in preparation for his great saving work. It leads up to the great drama of the Passion, just as Christ’s whole life did. And as he spent 40 days in the wilderness (like Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness), so we are called to follow him there, as we must also deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him to Golgotha.
Lent is a family celebration. Suppose you invited a guest to a birthday party and he replied, “I’ll celebrate your birthday by staying home and thinking about you from time to time. I’m just not a joiner, so I’d rather not bother with all those other people at the party. I don’t really care for your friends.” If everybody did that, there’d be no celebration. So we are called to observe Lent (like all things Christian), not as hermits, but as members of Christ’s body, the church. For we are “parts of one another.” (Romans 12:5)
That’s why St. Paul talks about how “in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church.” (Colossians 1:24) Does Paul mean that Jesus’ cross is insufficient to save us? Nope. Catholics see suffering, not as something we do to be “good enough for God,” but rather as God’s strangest gift to us. We do so because, like the apostles who counted themselves fortunate to be worthy of suffering for the name of Jesus, we agree with Scripture that it is an undeserved honor (and one we could never earn) to be “found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name” (if our little acts of charity and abstinence can even be compared with his complete act of self-denial which made us “good enough” for God 2,000 years ago). (Acts 5:41)
So in the end, my Protestant friends have nothing to worry about. For Lent is not anti-scriptural. It is not something we give to God to earn his love, but rather his gift of love to us, which he wants us to share. It is not primarily about fasting. Or abstaining. Or dryness. Or doing without. To be sure, it involves these indispensable things, but it does so as health involves exercise. If we live only for fasting we are as wrongheaded as a health nut who lives only for running. But if we remember that the real goal of both Lent and health is life, love and union with God and neighbor in the passion and resurrection of Christ, we are free to join Jesus in the desert and find, through him, with him and in him, the gift of life for others — and for ourselves.
Northwest Catholic - March 2016