Welcome to Lent! Once again we commence our annual ritual of turning away (or at least attempting to turn) from those forces in our lives that pull us from God so we can concentrate on those parts of our lives that pull us toward God. We will engage in prayer, self-denial, and good works to remind us of our bond with God and how it has been weakened through our own selfishness and self-centeredness.
The readings today invited me to reflect on the Lenten practices of preparation. Both Joel and Matthew discuss fasting as a process of returning to God. Self-denial (fasting) was commonly seen as the major activity of Lent while I was growing up. The big discussion topic in my Catholic grade school was what we were each “giving up” for Lent – TV, candy, movies, etc. It almost became Orwellian to see how we, as little children, would chide each other if we observed some slippage in the publicly stated intentions for Lenten practices.
Fasting and abstaining didn’t seem terribly hard as a child – don’t eat meat on Fridays, and only eat one “full meal” (I have always had trouble determining the legal definition of a full meal – sandwich with no chips or cookies? soup with only half a sandwich? If I felt full after the “half meal” did I overindulge? Was that a sin?) and no snacking. Mom took care of the no meat part, and kept an eagle eye on the snacks. If we “gave up” TV mom controlled that by just keeping it turned off. It helped that the fasting rules only applied for those 18-59. As I reached the “age of inclusion” I started to think – “Wait, so, this is good for you – where is the sacrifice?” And once I acquired a taste for fish, and found I actually enjoyed it, then “abstaining” was an excuse to get a nice fish meal – fresh caught salmon, or mahi mahi, or walleye – so again, it didn’t seem like much of sacrifice. And now that I am over 59, the fasting rules don’t even apply.
I don’t remember when, but sometime in the last 10-20 years the Church seemed to change its focus (or perhaps I became more aware of the different focus) on Lent by moving away from “what are you giving up” to a more positive approach. It was liberating when I heard priests recommending that Lent be more than just self-denial, and daily mass. I heard the emphasis switch from keeping the Lenten rules to also doing something positive during this time – praying more, serving the hungry or saving money for a food bank, or some other positive manifestation of connecting to the good that God calls us to do. And yet, when we read Mark today, those three elements – doing good, praying, and fasting – that we now recognize as the Lenten experience have always been what Jesus called us to do.
When I did a little internet research on fasting (yes, I admit I used Wikipedia, forgive me for my sin against traditional research techniques!), I found that fasting in the Catholic sense is much less intense than in other religious traditions (e.g., the Islamic Ramadan practices.) I also found a reference to Isaiah 58:5 – 7, where the prophet expresses God’s desired form of fasting:
I am not bound today by the expected Lenten practices regarding fasting. But I can choose to do so. I am not required to increase my level of daily prayer, or my good works. But I can choose to do so. I won’t have peers like my grade school classmates or my parents watching what I do during Lent. But I have my own conscience, and my only commitment to personal integrity. If I want to move closer to God, and want to use Lent to help me do so, it is my choice, my undertaking, and my responsibility to myself. And if I create habits during Lent of intentional self-denial instead of self-gratification, of more prayerful responses to God’s many blessings, and of more personal involvement in relieving the plight of the least among us, then my Lent will have been “acceptable to the Lord.”
And so my prayer today is for a generous spirit of willing sacrifice during this time of Lent as a means to the end of strengthening my relationship with God and more closely following the call of Jesus.
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