Lent in the Eyes of Unbelievers

We should be careful what we say about Lent. Even (sometimes especially) our best intentions fail us. According to Cathleen Falsani (I should qualify the title; I don’t know if or what she believes, except about Lent), religion writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, the Vatican II preferred line on Ash Wednesday is, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”

Her comment:

It wasn’t the traditional line about ashes to ashes, dust to dust. This one (an addition from the Second Vatican Council) was more personal. A call to action.

To examine myself. To make changes. To be better.

I have 40 days to straighten things out before Easter arrives. For most of Christendom, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, 40 days (not counting Sundays) that precede Easter.

Perhaps my Roman Catholic friends despise that change as well, but to me it illustrates everything that is wrong with most people’s understandings of Lent. Because as soon as you’re done doing your best to “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel,” you might as well end up at the former phrase: “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” [Have we ever said “dust to dust, ashes to ashes” as Ms. Falsani says?]

We can examine ourselves all we want; whether that will produce changes, and whether those will be for the better, are up for debate. Lent is not 40 days to “straighten things out before Easter arrives.” (You’ll need a lot longer than that, like eternity.) One purpose is to concentrate into a shorter period of time what the whole of the Christian life is about: death and resurrection, repentance and faith, confession and absolution, drowning daily. The straightening out is done by the one whose arms were straightened on the cross. Let’s not fool ourselves. The only practices worth anything in Lent our those that move our minds away from ourselves to Christ. (And I’m not very good at those either.)

Ms. Falsani has at least one thing right:

I used to loathe Lent. It was depressing, a failed exercise in self-denial and sacrifice that always left me feeling worse. Unlovable. Unworthy.

A shame spiral usually ensued.

The problem is, the same thing happens even when it’s not about shame and guilt; “making changes” and “doing better” are only the flip-side of “self-denial” and “sacrifice.”

She likes “adding” rather than “subtracting”:

Last year, a dear friend of mine here in Chicago, one of the most faithful and spiritually creative people I know, added instead of subtracting.

Her Lenten spiritual discipline? She danced alone in her living room to U2’s song “Yahweh” every morning before heading to work. Didn’t miss a day.

I loved that.

[Church-lady falsetto:] Well isn’t that special?

Her conclusion:

When I came back to the newsroom with the smudgy black cross on my forehead, someone asked me what I was going to be giving up.

“Nothing,” I said.

But that’s not true, really. I have decided to try to give something up during this Lenten season: Guilt.

And I’m determined to add a Lenten discipline: Silence.

Even 10 minutes a day. So I can hear things.

Like the birds that have started to return as spring approaches.

Like the people I love who are trying to tell me what’s on their minds.

Like the still, small, eternal voice that wants me to know that I’m loved just for being and that there’s always a chance to right a wrong.

Maybe that’s why so many people are oddly drawn to the ash-stained black thumb of a priest asking them to turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel, the one that tells us the greatest command is radical love.

Everybody wants to have a comeback, a fresh start, a karmic mulligan.

Lent reminds us that such grace happens.

People can change.

Do over.

Begin again.

Everyone gets another chance.

No matter how many chances we get to “right a wrong,” eventually we all run out of second chances. No one will be left behind with videotapes describing how to accept Jesus as his personal savior. Now is the acceptable day of salvation. Repent and believe in the Gospel.

Pr. Petersen’s words are salutary:

So here is the real solution:
Keep on quiting. Keep on repenting. Confess the right thing, the true
thing, that sin is bad, that you were wrong, that God is good, and you
want to do better. Pray for mercy, for Divine intervention, for the
forgiveness won for you by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
He is your Champion. He fights for you and succeeds where you failed.
His mercy, His kingdom, is your right, your inheritance. God loves you
and He is not angry. He does not hold your sins against you. You don’t
have anything to prove, anything to earn. It does not matter how stupid,
how weak, how evil you have been. He has overcome temptation in your
place. He has taken away the accusations against you.

He is an example not just in the desert, but also on the cross. Accept
the chastisement of your Father in heaven and wait for the resurrection
of the dead. Sin’s power to condemn has already been removed. You are a
saint of God. You belong to Him. Soon its power to seduce you will also
be removed. You will no longer hurt yourself or those you love. In the
day of Our Lord Jesus Christ He will complete this good work in you. You
will be free as God meant you to be.

Come this day and eat what God gives. It is manna in the desert. For you
do not live by bread alone, but by every Word that proceeds from the
Mouth of God. The Word of the Father’s Mouth has become Flesh. He has
joined Himself to bread in order to feed your soul, to cure your
disease, to quench your thirst, to strengthen your faith, to remove your
sins. Here in the Holy Communion the angels minister to God’s people.
Here is an end to the fast, to hunger and desire, to fear and shame.
Here is the victory of God given and shed for you.