Yesterday we celebrated Ash Wednesday, the day marking the beginning of the forty-day journey of Lent that culminates in Easter. Nearly every Christian knows this liturgical season well—perhaps one could say we are even a bit obsessed with it. (Just look at the huge crowds that pack our churches on Ash Wednesday.) It is the liturgical season of repentance, return, and inner conversion. It calls us to take an inventory of our personal lives, recognize our failures, and to turn towards God through the disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. (Matt 6)
Although all of these dimensions of the season are important and laudable, I cannot help but think we often miss the bigger picture, the “why” that is behind the outward practices we do as Christians. I imagine all of us can look back to our previous Lenten practices—giving up candy, soda, other favorite foods, etc.—but did we ever really ask why?
In the early centuries of the church, penance was very different from most of our practices of penance today. Whereas our culture tends to focus on the individual and personal nature of sin (i.e., individual confession in the Catholic tradition), the early church acknowledged the social dimension of sin. For those preparing for adult baptism and entrance into the church, penance was done publicly. I know, this may sound harsh. But we have to recognize the theology and reasoning behind it. Public penance was not held to publicly shame and embarrass someone; rather, it was done because sin was viewed as having public consequences beyond solely the individual or personal. By sinning against God, one was also hurting the community. It was necessary, therefore, to ask for forgiveness from God in order to be reintegrated into the community of faith.
In his book No Future Without Forgiveness, Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaks of a very similar idea in the South African region known as Ubuntu, a belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all of humanity. “Ubuntu . . . speaks of the very essence of being human.” A person with Ubuntu “has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.”
And so, Lent is more than turning inward, though it is critical that we do. The U.S. Catholic bishops frame it this way: “During Lent penance should be not only inward and individual but also outward and social, and should be directed toward works of mercy on behalf of our brothers and sisters.” (Ceremonial of Bishops, #251). We do not practice Lenten disciplines, therefore, because we are such sinful, awful people that cannot receive forgiveness without them. God’s love is always present no matter how great our failings. Rather, these disciplines help us pare down our lives to see God more clearly as well as the goodness in the created world. Viewing Lent through this lens counters the individualism of American society that values an “every man for himself” mentality. As one of my former theology professors insightfully said, “Without community, there can be no accounting for life’s limitations and for one’s failure to live up to one’s obligation to sustain it and participate in it fully. Repentance and reconciliation cannot be practiced or celebrated between a person and a book, even when the book is the bible. (Eternity Today, Martin Connell)
So let us journey together during this Lenten season. Let us allow these Forty Days to unite the baptized as the Body of Christ with the socially degraded of the world. Let us pray for one another, support one another, and hold each other accountable as we work to establish the kingdom of God on earth.
Rachelle Kramer is the new Assistant Director of Liturgy & Music in the CFJ, she brings to us loads of experience from her very long resume which includes a 9 year stint at Marquette University. If you haven’t met her, come find her, she’s the fun lady in the back of the office, thus rounding out the goofy corner of people who reside in the back of the CFJ.