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The Irony of "Giving Up" for Lent

Ash-Wednesday-Bulletin-CoverPresident’s Blog
March 5, 2014

“So, what are you giving up for Lent?”     

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the 40-day Lenten Season preceding Easter.  Many of us engage various forms of self-denial, penitence, abstinence, and/or fasting as a way to become more aware of God’s presence and as a way to prepare for the remembrance of the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

There is sometimes an irony in our decision about what it is we will be “giving up” each Lenten season.  The thing we choose, while it may be a real sacrifice of something we normally enjoy, is often given up in relation to a vain self-interest. The sacrifice is not necessarily conceived of as that which will enhance our relationship with God or help us to be more conscious of God’s presence, or lead us to real repentance for our shortcomings.   We give up things like certain foods, smoking, or the avoidance of exercise.  These sacrifices are positive steps toward better health and better stewardship of our bodies.  But, I sometimes wonder if we take a ride on Lent to get something done we have not been able to accomplish otherwise.  As well intentioned and important as these efforts are, do these sacrifices connect consciously enough to a spirit of repentance or to more sensitivity for God’s presence in our lives?  Or, are these efforts at self-denial only ennobled ways of accomplishing, under religious censure, something we would not otherwise have undertaken?

I know I have drawn too clean a distinction here, for there is always ambiguity in our human motivations:  “ . . . all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, NRSV).  Along with St. Paul, we need all the help we can get to do the things that we know we ought to do.  And, we can always appeal to an ethic of at least doing the right thing, if for not exactly the right reasons – oh, so human of us!  The lectionary texts for today speak to this complexity.  From Isaiah 58, I note verses 5-7:

“Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? 
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
 and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
 Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord? 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? 
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
 and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

God challenges us about parading our humility and self-righteousness, when what God really desires is that we would respond to the needs of our neighbors.  And in Matthew, from the “Sermon on the Mount,” we find a similar concern, with a focus on our prayer lives:

"And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (MT 6:5-6).

I am troubled by public prayers before a meal in which we/I regularly, in the midst of our/my own gratitude for the gift of food before me remember those who will not be eating today.  And, then I proceed to actually do little or nothing about it, except for the occasional money given to a stranger begging on the streets, or the occasional donation to a food pantry, or the occasional service in a soup kitchen.  It is all pretty comfortable for me.  I do not worry about whether or not I will be able to eat today.  I know I will have a warm bed to sleep in and a roof over my head tonight.  I also know that what I have done is not enough, even as I feel overwhelmed by the enormity of an economic system that does not support equitable distribution of our resources.

There is certainly no one right way to go about observing Lent.  My Lenten discipline will include times of self-assessment, reflection and prayer.  I will repent for how I have failed to live more fully into my Christian vocation and into the commandments to love God with all my mind, heart, and soul, and to love my neighbor as myself.  But, I am not yet clear about what it is I will give up for Lent.  Perhaps, I will give up the easy prayers that do not result in significant action.  At the very least, I encourage all of us to spend time in our prayer closets, honestly considering how we have fallen short, listening to what God may be saying to us, and seeking discernment for the meaningful expression of real change in our lives that moves us closer to the prophet’s admonition to “loose the bonds of injustice.”  May this Lenten season be a period of deep reflection and renewal for our seminary community and friends, and a time of blessing as we seek to more fully know God’s presence in our lives.  


# Catherine Knott 2014-03-05 12:52
I'm reminded of something Merton once said: "The spiritual life is something people worry about when they are so busy with something else that they think they ought to be spiritual." I suppose at its heart, Lent is an opportunity to "have a go" at the brutal and stark contemplation that Christ has invited us to live out in every moment in the first place. It's a lot easier just to consider giving up chocolate.
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