Thursday, March 12, 2009

Lenten Reflection

(News-Herald, March 12) We’re now in the midst of Lent, a season that the Christian church has observed since almost its very beginnings.
Of course, people are commonly familiar with Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) as a celebration of pre-Lenten excess. The idea is to indulge one last time before entering a season of self-sacrifice. In typical human fashion, we have an easier time remembering the over-indulgence part.
The term “lent” comes from the old Germanic name for springtime, and while many of us are a little fuzzy about the purpose, the general list of Things To Do includes fasting, penitence, simplicity, and self-denial in an attempt to grow in faith, a little spiritual spring cleaning. It’s not supposed to be like a New Years resolution with an expiration date.
When Lent is observed by folks who don’t put much thought into the whole business, it ends up being like the worst relationship therapy session ever.
Therapist: We’ve agreed that the relationship between the two of you is kind of a mess, and I thought today we’d talk about how far you’re willing to go to set things right.
God: Well, I thought I could take the form of a mortal human, setting aside my power over all creation, and then suffer a horrible death to pay for sins I never actually committed.
Mortal Human: I figured I could go a month without eating Twinkies.
I’m not sure you get any big credit for giving up things you shouldn’t be doing anyway. “I gave up robbing little old ladies for Lent,” doesn’t sound all that virtuous. Likewise, no fair giving up things that you haven’t actually gotten around to doing. I get no points for a Lenten decision not to sleep with Carmen Electra.
And we’re not just supposed to give something up. Part of the Lenten tradition is almsgiving—contributing to charity, helping the less fortunate. If I take all the money I would have spent on Twinkies and buy a few cases of Ding Dongs instead, I’ve missed part of the point. That Twinkie money should go to a good cause.
Not everyone is a fan of Lent. Many hard-core Protestant denominations find the whole business entirely too Catholic Churchy, while in modern times many churches rejected the season as too heavy on guilt and sin and just generally too much of a downer. The ashes of Ash Wednesday are about 1) being mortal and destined to die and 2) being sorry that we have behaved so poorly in our brief lifetime. Neither observation will make you the life of the party.
Which may be why this is a good year for remembering Lent—there’s not much of a party going on right now. I don’t have any deep analysis of the current mess other than economic messes are always hard to sort out because they involve some hard-to-quantify combination of real problems pushing people over the edge and people just freaking out and jumping.
Nor am I fan of cheery sayings like “Tough times don’t last; tough people do.” Too chirpy, too glib, and not always true. But I do like Easter, and one lesson I take from Easter is that life can get pretty rotten and scary, but that’s no excuse to stop trying to be a decent human being.
Lent provides a nice prelude to that, a chance to remember that we can give up some of our toys and still be ourselves, maybe even more so. Take away our uber-expensive stuff, and it turns out we’re the same people we ever were. Just with less stuff.
Occasionally circumstances can snap us out of our privileged complacency. We see people who suffer real catastrophes or catastrophic lapses in judgment. Watching people soldier on through disaster reminds us that A) mostly we suffer not at all and B) there but for the grace of God…
But there’s no reason to wait for circumstances to remind us of our humanity. A good dose of pancakes and ashes can be an occasion to remember that other people exist, that we all share some troubles, and we could stand to get over ourselves. The oddly encouraging thing about remembering that we aren’t all that great is realizing that we aren’t all that bad, either.
I don’t mean to suggest that real suffering isn’t hard and painful. But forty days of self-denial can help us rediscover gratitude, strength and empathy for our fellow strugglers.

No comments:

From my Flickr