Monday, February 15, 2010

Forty Days and Forty Nights

Here we are, closing in on the holy season of Lent.  It is the great time that Christians use to reorient our lives to Christ in preparation to celebrate the Resurrection on Easter.

During a recent conversation with a friend, I mentioned that I am planning on abstaining from alcohol during Lent (a great personal sacrifice) save for St. Patrick's Day, when I plan to enjoy a healthy glass of Irish whiskey in honor of the great saint.  These Lenten plans conjured the comment, "Good idea, because Jesus came out of the desert during those 40 days."

That response brought something to mind:  We have a strange understanding of Lent.

First of all, the liturgical season of Lent is not even literally 40 days long.  Go ahead and count from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday and see what number you get.  (Sorry; that was a trick.  Lent ends before Easter.)  Second, "giving up" good things during Lent beyond the Church's fasting and abstinence requirements is only a voluntary--albeit spiritually beneficial--custom.  So should I chose to break my Lenten observance of abstaining from alcohol in order to remember St. Patrick in a traditional Irish way, I am free to do so.  And keep in mind, giving up alcohol is not the only penitential act I am performing during Lent, so I am still observing the penitential nature of the season.

We also seem to forget the baptismal focus of the season.  Lent began as time of preparation for those entering the Church at the Easter Vigil, and during the first 1500 years of Christianity, that meant those who had never been baptized.  Those converts had to not only learn about the Faith but also make public acts of penitence and conversion as ways to show their sincerity.  Think of Lent as the original RCIA program, which the Church, in her wisdom, soon saw as a good, holy and fruitful practice to extend to all Christians.

So we should understand Lent as a time to refocus on our baptismal commitment to Jesus as well as to use increased prayer, fasting and almsgiving in order to free ourselves from distractions and be renewed by the fundamental event of human history:  Christ's Resurrection from the grave and triumph over Death.

Unfortunately it seems that many of our churches emphasize a gimmicky "desert experience," complete with sand in the sanctuary and dry holy water fonts (the latter of which not only creates a disconnect between the baptismal character of the sacramental and the season but also is expressly prohibited). And so, without plumbing the theological depths of the season, Lent can easily seem dry and lifeless.

Find all your Lenten questions answered here, and some ideas for acts of penance here!

Keep the Fast; keep the Feast.