As I noted a few days ago every parish and every blog site is creaking under the weight of Lenten Programs. Honesty compels me to observe that the intoxicating wine of novelty and innovation does get mingled into the austerity of the penitential season. On the other hand, parishes, dioceses and other religious communities take advantage of the traditional appeal of Ash Wednesday and the forty days to introduce the blessings and benefits of community and individual prayer and reflection upon the Scriptures.
The three building blocks of Lent are quite simple: prayer, fasting, almsgiving. The spirit of Lent is more about examining our attitudes toward these three dimensions of the Christian life than engaging in a marathon of sorts to see how much one can take.
With regard to prayer, I remember a quote from years ago (the author, alas, escapes me.) “A man’s kneeling to pray does nothing for God but does everything for the man.” I have never met anyone who seriously asserted that he prayed enough, but life’s observations show us that in fact we really are self-satisfied. For starters, prayer is the moment we make the profound statement about ourselves, that everything we have, everything we are, is the result of the creating power of God. The opposite of prayer is hubris: a pseudo-pride that I have accomplished everything by my own diligence, the kind of pride that is incapable of gratitude, embittered with setbacks.
Fasting is denial. It destroys the sense of entitlement we all secretly live with, the material equation that if I do X, I deserve Y. Fasting puts to bed our illusory sense of self control. In truth we are enslaved to such mighty gods as potato chips. One reason we shy away from voluntary fasting is the grossly disturbing fact that for many, even in own counties, fasting is not religious/bourgeois/cosmetic sport but a grim way of life. And unless we are so scripturally dulled as to be mindless, we know deep inside that it is the involuntary hunger of others upon which we will be judged.
We have a pope today who is preaching a global sermon on the meaning of almsgiving. Many years ago my parish youth conducted a car wash for an international disaster, charging the princely sum of $2 for a full service job. That evening, after the Vigil Mass, a man with a giant luxury sedan came up to me while I was still vested, and began to vent his anger over the his claim that these kids had not done a very good job. I did not hit him. I did happen to have my wallet under the vestments, and it did contain two singles. I took the two bills and gave them to him with the unspoken prayer that he drive his Cadillac up the road next Saturday night.
There is almsgiving and there is almsgiving. Tossing a few discretionary dollars toward the poor is not the Gospel mean. Entering the state of mind of Christ is the true Lenten challenge. Jesus talked about almsgiving in the language of extravagance: baskets of bread and fish left over, grain falling out of the folds of one’s robe, feasts for the blind and lame: to participate in God’s overly generous heart and his infinite impartiality is the ultimate Lenten goal. “Your heavenly father makes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.”Perhaps we may lose a pound or two this Lent; but pray to gain an ounce of insight (whatever program you choose.)