For a season ends in darkness at the foot of the cross, Lent sure attracts a lot of attention. But it’s divorced from the emphasis on human mortality, Lent is sure to draw all kinds of “tourists.”
Lent is not a time for the latest diet fad or merelyabstaining from soda or candy then posting about it on social media. It’s really no longer Lent at that point. In fact, Jesus has some pointed words about such a practice.
And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Matthew 6:16
When observed in context, beginning with the imposition of ashes (Ash Wednesday) and culminating with the service of darkness (Tenebrae), these 40 days can truly provide an opportunity for penance and transformation. Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness challenged his very being allowing him to emerge with a calling that would bring Good News to all people everywhere. The Lenten journey is not about self-serving piety but about meaningful self-reflection and sacrifice.
What to “give up” for Lent you ask? Start with something risky and pray (in private) for God’s reign on Earth as it is in heaven. Then do something dangerous and act on it. It’s time we sacrifice hearts of stone for those full of compassion. It’s time we give up our indifference in exchange for Christ-like empathy. It’s time we lay our mere tolerance at the altar and engage in full Christian inclusivity and hospitality. It’s time we stop being idle enablers of injustice and embrace, perhaps for the first time, the Way of Jesus Christ. It’s like the prophet said:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke? Isaiah 58:8
I recently had my students compare the mothers in Richard Wright’s autobiography, “Rights to the Streets of Memphis” and Langston Hughes’s poem, “Mother to a Son.” As the class discussion turned toward poverty I interrupted the conversation and said:
“I have no idea what it’s like to live in poverty.”
A student quickly replied:
“It’s nice to hear a teacher admit that.”
This made me pause and reflect. I’ve been to impoverished areas of various US cities, Appalachia, Mexico, and Honduras. But I really don’t know anything about living in poverty. I’ve never questioned whether I would have a next meal. Ever. That’s true for many people that I know.
Wright and Hughe’s captures the struggle of those living in American poverty that is as real today as it was in the early 20th century. Perhaps, Lent might be a time for the Christian to consider the widening wage gaps, income inequality, and the slashing of safety net programs that make it more difficult for people to survive.
After Jesus emerges from his fasting he spends a great portion of his ministry afflicting the “haves” and comforting the “have nots”. He seems to have no use for an economic system that allows greedy “tax” collectors, for example, to prey upon the most fragile. This focal point of Jesus’s ministry cannot be ignored during one’s Lenten journey . . .or after.
For the Christian, and non-Christian, poverty is a moral issue. It’s sinful no matter how we look at as it is created and perpetuated by humans.
Decades ago the United States declared a “war on poverty”. Here is what Stringfellow had to say at the time on the matter:
. . .a war on poverty has been declared, but as of now, it seems more an appeasement of the conscience of the prosperous than empathy for the sufferings of the poor. Poverty cannot be undone in America by appropriating a nickel where five dollars is required.” William Stringfellow, Dissenter in a Great Society.
Stringfellow’s could have easily been written in 2015. Everyone, Christians included, as Stringfellow later explains, are part of the political process whether we want to be or not, Poverty is not only a moral crisis, but it is also a political one: it is sinful and it is a matter of life and death for those who live it day in and day out.
For us Christians in the United States, as part of the church and part of the political process, there really isn’t any question as to how we are called to act upon the matter.
Lent is rooted in the Christian tradition. Removing it from that tradition or secularizing it ( e.g. making it a time of giving up chocolate) trivializes this ancient practice. Jesus temptation in the wilderness is a template for those who follow him. For the Christian, in words of R. Culpepper this is a time to:
Resist the temptation to forget one’s baptismal identity.
Remain faithful rather than being successful or striving for power.
Resist being “dazzled” by the wealth of the world.
Lent is a tiime of real sacrifice. And in the 21st century there are real sacrifices that Christians need to make:
- Hateful speech and dialogue, especially on social media.
- The “need” to be right . . . or thinking one’s ideology or theology is the “correct” way.
- Patriarchy . . .all forms.
- Participation in, tacitly or willingly, systemic racism
- Xenophobia towards the “other.”
- Supporting political and economic systems that crush the poor.
- Bible worship . . . it’s a collection of many books covering many centuries- not a singular text that is without error.
- Fundamentalism. It is dangerous and, as we know through history often leads to violence.
These are unpopular for sure. But there are very few systems of the 21st century, if any, in which Jesus would participate. The Gospel is political as much as it is spiritual. If it were not Jesus would not have been executed by politicians on a cross.
Eat the chocolate and drink the wine- it’s what Jesus would want I think. Instead, be faithful. Engage in acts of love, mercy, and compassion: the weightier things of “the law”.
I’ve been coming back to Richard Rohr’s gem of a book, “Falling Upward,” for the past year. Rohr speaks to spiritual matters, particularly the male journey, in ways that few have been able, or dared, to do in our time. I I find his personal defense for quoting Jesus poignant.
So I offer this personal apologia for those of you who perhaps are wondering why I quote Jesus so much. You might be saying, ‘Does it really matter?’ or ‘Does it have to be in the Bible to be true?’ Well, I quote Jesus because I still consider him to be the [emphasis Rohr’s] spiritual authority of the Western world, whether we follow him or not. He is always spot-on at the deeper levels and when we understand him in his own explosive context. One does not even need to believe in his divinity to realize that Jesus is seeing at a much higher level than most of us.
For some of you , my quoting Jesus is the only way you will trust me; for others, it gives you more reason to mistrust me, but I have to take both risks. If I dared to present all of these ideas simply as my ideas, or because they match modern psychology or old mythology, I would be dishonest. Jesus for me always clinches the deal, and I sometimes wonder why I did not listen to him in the first place.
I had every intention of writing some insightful words on this Ash Wednesday eve, as the Christian season of Lent begins, for anyone who might care to read. But I’ve found that, being years removed from leading a faith community as my primary vocation, practicing my own faith has become a luxury. I suppose it was a bit easier when it was my “job.” Finding time for what is important to me has simply become ever so challenging. I know I’m not alone.
The way we construct our schedules leaves little room for that which repairs and nourishes our souls. When this becomes the norm that, to me, is a sign that something is terribly wrong. Our bodies were not made for the life depleting expectations of the secular world. One purpose of Ash Wednesday, at least for the Christian, is to be reminded that we are limited, finite, and mortal. We could all, Christian, spiritual, or otherwise, bear to be reminded of that great truth.
Even if Lent isn’t your “thing”, but you’re feeling dislodged from your center, it might be a good time to embark on a journey that, in the very least, involves an exercise in self care . . . and care for those around you. We were meant to make this journey together. Peace.