I taught a session at a church recently, and the issue of Lenten practices came up. It seemed that most people grew up with the idea of “giving things up” for the season. In their stories, I detected a bit of Publican-vs-Pharisee attitude – judging who was more virtuous, favored, or righteous based on the penitential practices they chose to endure. Unfortunately, it was not the first time I’ve encountered such attitudes, and I suspect it won’t be the last.
In fact, when I was raised in a small almost-100%-Catholic town in rural Iowa, everyone judged everyone that way. People believed they were righteous based on their actions – how many times they went to Mass in a week, how much money they donated to the parish, whether their kids attended the Catholic school (combined with whose kids were perfectly behaved and never in trouble), whether they wore modest clothing, and the list went on. The more items one could tick off, the more holy and upright that person was considered to be. At times, it seemed almost like a competition for God’s favor, judged according to human standards.
Yet, the scriptures tell us an entirely different story. In Hosea, God laments about the lack of genuine piety, saying to the chosen people: “It is love that I desire, not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” The psalmist follows this up with: “For you are not pleased with sacrifices; should I offer a burnt offering, you would not accept it. My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.”
That presents a different perspective on Lent, doesn’t it? The purpose of Lent is not to change our eating behaviors or increase our worthy activities (especially if those changes only last until Easter). The purpose of Lent is to humble our hearts, to love, to offer mercy, and to become more like Christ. Any external behavior we choose must be directed toward that interior goal, or it is not only in vain but worthless. It is not what God seeks.
This means that I need to join the elect (those journeying toward celebrating their baptism, confirmation, and communion at the Easter Vigil), who on the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Sundays of Lent engage in The Scrutinies. They take a hard and exacting look at themselves, their motivations, and their actions, to discern ways in which they are allowing obstacles to exist between themselves and God. Then, with the prayer and support of the community, they are challenged to remove those obstacles, purify their hearts, and come to the waters of Easter with changed and softened hearts, open to receive God’s Spirit in its fullness.
What better goal could any of us have? Whether you began Lent deciding to give up the usual thing or you carefully chose to do something to make a difference, don’t stop there. Use the scriptures and liturgies, the inherent awareness of suffering and mortality, and the grace of this sacred season to go deeper. I don’t want to let myself get off easy with superficial piety or a too-quick skim over the surface of my fears, attempts at control, weaknesses, pride, and sin. I pray for the strength to ask hard questions, the insight to see where I fall short, and the wisdom to know what to do about it. I want to grow closer to God. I want to be vulnerable and pliable before the One who is the source of my life. I want to be an ever more transparent instrument of God’s healing and loving power.
I pray that through the rest of this Lenten season we may join together as a community in prayer more intensely and attentively than usual. May we, as examples and companions to the elect, unflinchingly and honestly uncover our faults and failings, and work hard to allow God to transform our hearts of stone. Perhaps then we can all come to the waters of Easter, and rejoice as we meaningfully renew our covenantal relationship with God and go out into the world more humbled, loving, contrite, and Christ-like. And perhaps (dare we hope?) our sincere example may inspire others to do the same, so that as a Body of Christ we can bring the reign of God to our needy, broken, and hurting world.
With all my energy and will, I’m going to try. Will you? Can we?
Amy Florian is a teacher and consultant working in Chicago. For many years she has partnered with the Passionists. Visit Amy’s website: http://www.corgenius.com/.