Lent always challenges me. That probably has something to do with the fact that I am an intense person by nature; I don’t like doing things halfway. That may be why I’ve gotten so many concussions – in some rather unexpected settings like playing Trivial Pursuit, watching a basketball game, and even going on retreat. In college, I naturally applied this intensity to the Lenten Season, when I would give up several of my favorite things for 40 days. One year, like a badge of honor, I deprived myself of both meat and dessert, thinking this kind of sacrifice was proof of my devotion to God.
When I thought of Lent as something to endure, the truth is that depriving myself of these foods didn’t help me grow in right-relationship with God or other people. In fact, sometimes these sacrifices provided the opposite effect, because I found myself becoming bitter about how much I missed what I had given up for Lent (and sometimes envious or resentful of others who didn’t). I had lost sight of the fact that Lent isn’t something Christians are supposed to endure; it’s an invitation to be more intentional about our relationship with God and become more aware of what might distract us from keeping God at the center of our lives. Lent is a time for spiritual renewal, and to be renewed, we have to become more available to the will of God.
I missed this point in my diligent fixation on following through on my fasting. This attachment to making Lent more about willpower (or a test of how much I could withstand until the feast I had planned for Easter) kept me from being free or available to discern and respond to God’s work in my life.
To say that I missed the point of my fasting isn’t to suggest there’s no point to fasting. Jewish people have long fasted from certain foods out of respect for God and as a sign of their commitment and fidelity to their covenant with YHWH. In the Christian tradition, fasting from meat on Fridays during Lent (it used to be year-round) is a form of penance as well as a practice to choose simplicity and sacrifice in solidarity with Christ on the road to Calvary. Abstaining from meat is meant to be an act of reverence as much as it is a ritual of remembrance of Jesus’ death on the cross. By sharing in this practice, Christian individuals and communities mark themselves as loyal to Christ and moreover, they fast from certain foods or habits in order to become more attuned to their spiritual hunger.
Another year in college, my spiritual director challenged me to be less intense with my Lenten fast, but that left me with a lukewarm experience. A few weeks in, I felt like I was just going through the motions. On a cerebral level, I knew what Lent was about, what I should be doing, and why I should be doing it, but I didn’t feel like my heart was in it. As I struggled in this spiritual draught, my spiritual director invited me to pray with this passage from the prophet Joel:
Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning. Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God. For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love … (2:12-13)
This passage—incidentally, the First Reading for Mass on Ash Wednesday this year—invited me to consider what returning to God with my whole heart would look like. What does it mean to give my whole heart to God and hold nothing back? If I examine all that fills my heart, what do I affirm and what do I deny? What do I need to nurture and what do I need to prune? What leads me closer or farther away from right-relationship with God?
Trying to dedicate each day to whole-heartedly returning to God sounds rather intense. If I’m too intense about it, then it’s not a sustainable commitment and I burn out. If I’m not intense enough, then the meaning of the commitment fizzles out, Lent loses its potency, and I just go back to going through the motions.
The point of Lent is to break from the “ordinary time” of our lives (and the liturgical calendar) in order to evaluate our relationship with God, others, and oneself. The Lenten Season is like a 40 day retreat to hold up a mirror to our life so we can reflect on how we spend our time, what we prioritize or rely on, the kinds of intentions that shape our attitudes, actions, and interactions with others, as well as where there might be areas of self-deception, over-indulgence, or indifference to those around us.
Through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (sacrificial giving, or service), Lent is a discipline—a spiritual workout—to bring greater clarity, intentionality, and order to our relationship with God, others, and oneself. Throughout the Bible, we see people who take up these practices in order to whole-heartedly accept the kind of purification they need to restore their relationship with God, others, and oneself.
Following this tradition, Lent is an invitation to personal and communal transformation. Starting on Ash Wednesday, we are invited to fast from or “give up” attitudes or actions that might be an obstacle or encumbrance to loving God, others, and oneself. But not as a punishment or test (like I saw it in college, as a measure of my faithfulness) just to endure for 40 days. Rather, if we embrace this invitation to transformation, the goal is to become more fully human (that is, more open, more attentive and responsive, more loving, more just, more fully alive) as individuals and communities by the time we get to Holy Week.
By fasting from some habits, I can be freed to feast on other, more life-giving habits that help me become more aware of and responsive to God’s activity in my life. If I’m fasting from spending hours watching Netflix, I’m invited to feast on more time in prayer or service. If I’m fasting from the temptation to pull out my phone every time I might feel awkward or bored, I’m invited to feast on making meaningful connections with classmates, roommates, coworkers, friends, family, or other people around me. If I’m fasting from meat, dessert, or alcohol, I’m invited into a feast of solidarity with those who hunger and thirst, or who are affected by the consumer choices I make. The more explicit I’ve been about this fast-from-in-order-to-feast-on dynamic, the more transformative my Lenten journey has been. One year, I gave up alcohol in an effort to be in solidarity with all those whose lives are affected by alcohol abuse and I donated the money I would have spent on beer to a local domestic abuse shelter.
All throughout the Bible, we are constantly reminded that right-relationship with God requires right-relationship with others, which is why Lent shouldn’t just be something we endure or consider a matter of private piety. Instead, the Lenten Season is an invitation to renew our commitment to loving God and our neighbors with all our mind, soul, and strength. As the prophet Isaiah calls out to the people of God:
This … is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking off every yoke …
Sharing your bread with the hungry,
bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own … (58:6-7)
Isaiah is reminding the people of God that justice is understood as fidelity to the demands of the covenant between God and God’s people. It means taking seriously our command to love God (Deuteronomy 6:5) and our neighbor as our self (Leviticus 19:18) and this entails a special duty to the most vulnerable and marginalized among us (as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has pointed out, the command to love our neighbor is repeated twice in the Hebrew Scriptures, and the command to love the stranger, widow, and orphan—those without any status or security or place to belong—is repeated at least 36 times). Jesus reinforced this duty throughout his teaching and healing ministry, as he stood with the sinner, the outcast, and the marginalized. In his last public sermon in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus identifies himself with the least, the last, and the lowly: “What you do for the least of your brothers and sisters, you do for me” (25:40).
As Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ, author of Tattoos on the Heart has reflected,
Jesus was not a man for others. He was one with others. There is a world of difference in that. Jesus didn’t seek the rights of lepers. He touched the leper even before he go around to curing him. He didn’t champion the cause of the outcast. He was the outcast. He didn’t fight for improved conditions for the prisoner. He simply said, “I was in prison.”[Mt. 25:31-46] The strategy of Jesus is not centered in taking the right stand on issues, but rather standing in the right place – with the outcast and those relegated to the margins.
“How do we get the world to change anyway? Dorothy Day asked critically: ‘Where were the saints to try and change the social order? Not just minister to the slaves, but to do away with slavery.’ Dorothy Day is a hero of mine, but I disagree with her here. You actually abolish slavery by accompanying the slave. We don’t strategize our way out of slavery, we solidarize, if you will, our way toward its demise. We stand in solidarity with the slave, and by so doing, we diminish slavery’s ability to stand. By casting our lot with the gang member, we hasten the demise of demonizing. All Jesus asks is, Where are you standing? And after chilling defeat and soul-numbing failure, He asks again, ‘Are you still standing there?’ Can we stay faithful and persistent in our fidelity even when things seem not to succeed? I suppose Jesus could have chosen a strategy that worked better (evidence-based outcomes) – that didn’t end in the Cross – but he couldn’t find a strategy more soaked with fidelity than the one he embraced. You stand with the least likely to succeed until success is succeeded by something more valuable: kinship.”
Lent is an ideal time to renew our commitment to doing justice to God, others, and oneself; it’s an invitation to a 40-day retreat to learn and grow and then continue to integrate that learning and growth into the person I’m becoming. The practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving help us learn and grow in faithfulness, a faithfulness that invites us into ever-more-inclusive kinship with God and all God’s people.
How will you respond to this invitation? And what kind of intensity will you bring to sustain you for the journey ahead?
Dr. Marcus Mescher is an assistant professor is Xavier’s theology department. He is a sought after learning partner for the Alternative Breaks program and is amazingly active on twitter. Get bits of his twitter wisdom @marcusmescher. His twitter bio–“Theological ethicist in the tradition of Catholic social thought fascinated by what influences moral formation as well as the aspirations of Jesuit education.”