Sunday, 17 February 2013
1st Sunday of Lent, Year C, Shaftesbury
Someone was telling me recently what she was planning to give up for Lent (and said it was OK for me to mention it), and she said she was planning to give up shouting impatiently at her husband. So I asked her, "If you're giving that up for Lent… at the end of Lent, on Easter Sunday, when you stop giving that up for Lent, does that mean you're going to have a REALLY good scream at your husband on Easter Sunday?"!!!!
The woman's suggestion is a common mistake: to think that giving up a SIN for Lent is what 'giving something up for Lent' is about. But, it's not. Sin is something we should not be doing anyway, full stop. So it’s not logically coherent to think that it can be part of the voluntary ADDITIONAL practices that we take up for Lent and end when Lent is finished.
Let me note: Lent is about sin, but in a particular way. It's not so much about putting aside particular sins, as about applying the three traditional REMEDIES for sin that the Church gives us for this holy season of Lent, which is why the Gospel at the start of Lent (for Ash Wednesday) always has the text (Mt 6:1-6, 16-18) of our Lord speaking of the importance of those three: fasting, prayer, and almsgiving (giving to the poor). And primary among these three in this season is penance, especially in the form of fasting.
What then is Lent about? It’s a time of 40 days of union with our Lord's 40 days in the desert, as we heard in our Gospel text (Lk 4:1-13), as we hear on the first Sunday of Lent every year. And what did He do in the desert? He fasted and prayed.
When we 'give something up for Lent', be it snacks, chocolate, alcohol, or TV etc, we are engaging in a form of fasting. We are taking something that is good in itself, like food, and choosing to go without it, at least in part. This isn't like putting aside a sin, because we are putting aside something that is good it itself (to repeat myself). In the example of food, there is nothing wrong with food, it is good, it is given to us by God. But there is something wrong in ME in how I relate to food, how I am over-attached to it, there is a disorder in my desires. And part of what fasting does is that it puts discipline into my desires, and I grow in Christian self-control.
Fasting, however, is not just about self-control, otherwise it would be no different from dieting self-help guides. In contrast, fasting is something we do WITH Jesus and for Jesus. We do it with Him in that we are going into the desert with Him. We do it with Him in that we ask His inner grace and strength to do it.
And we do it FOR Him in that we offer our little penances, little acts of self-denial, offer them to Him as spiritual sacrifices, in union with His on the Cross. Little sacrifices of prayer, little sacrifices for our past sins.
And our desire to make such sacrifices is a very good but simple test of how much we really love God -if we love someone we are sorry for offending them, for sinning against them, and we seek to make little consoling acts of reparation to them, as we should in sacrifice to God.
So, we should each be, at least, giving a little something up for Lent, and this should be offered in prayer. But prayer in its own right is another of the three remedies for sin recommended to us in Lent. We should each think of some small extra practice of prayer to take up in this season. Something beyond the bare minimum that any good Catholic should do: Maybe attend Stations of the Cross, or a weekday Mass each week, or a daily extra decade of the rosary, or even just an extra Hail Mary.
Jesus went into the desert to fast and pray, and so should we in this season.
Finally, these two things should change us, should bear fruit in us in better loving, better giving to others, and almsgiving (giving to the poor) is thus the third part of our Lenten practice. That's why we always have a retiring collection in Lent to follow up on our day of fasting, which we had on this Ash Wednesday.
To conclude, Lent isn't about giving up shouting at your husband for 40 days, rather, it's about fasting, giving up something that is good in itself. And doing this in prayer and with prayer, and letting this bear fruit in good deeds to our neighbour.