Unapologetic Joy in a Season of Penitence

ash wednesday

Ecumenical Lenten Lunch @ Main Street United Methodist Church


Whenever the season of Lent rolls around, it always seems to come early, just a few short weeks from Christmas and the New Year, most of us barely catching a breath after putting away all the decorations and getting used to writing the proper year on our checks. Plus by comparison the tone of Lent is subdued, penitential, introspective, somewhat of a downer in the middle of what is often an already miserably cold and depressing winter. That is perhaps why we don’t ever rush into Lent willingly. Instead, for those of us who are regular church-goers, Lent is pretty much imposed upon us, much like the ashes that are traced on our foreheads to mark the start of the season. If Lent didn’t start with such a conspicuous display of religious fervor, most of us might just slip into the penitential season without anyone noticing. But we get marked with ashes right there on our faces for all the world to see.

Not so with that other church season of patient and penitential waiting—Advent. I think one significant reason the start of the Advent season doesn’t get noticed much is because we don’t emphasize it with some public religious display. Otherwise, most everyone is already in a “Christmassy” mood, pretty much since Halloween. Even if we did have some public church ritual to signal the start of Advent, it would be anti-climactic. Because by then, some among us who will go unnamed have already sent out their cards, wrapped their presents, and put up their trees. There would be no point firing that pistol at the starting line when half the horses have already left the gate.

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So how do we embrace Lent? What is perhaps the single most annoying question a Christian gets asked when your friends discover you observe Lent? So, what are you giving up for Lent? It almost seems the more it hurts, the more impressive our Lenten observance, which is simply contrary to the spirit of the season. “When you give alms,” we read in the Gospel of Matthew (6: 1—6, 16-18) which is one of the texts for Ash Wednesday, “do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you. … And when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”

So it looks like we might have been doing it all wrong, making a public display of something that should really be observed in secret. And when someone asks “What are you giving up for Lent?” we probably should not be so quick to divulge what we were instructed to keep to ourselves. Jesus reminds us, “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.” If by our acts of penitence we try to win the praise or approval of others, then we’re doing it wrong. Rather, the less notice we get, the better. And if we happen to give up anything for Lent that is otherwise fun and enjoyable, we risk drawing attention if we walk around looking all sad and annoyed. Instead, we should not appear to have “given anything up” at all, even if we have.

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Typically, people are inclined to give up things for Lent that are superfluous, things they can live without for a limited period of time, like dessert, or chocolate, or junk food, or alcohol. It might cause them some slight discomfort, but nothing they can’t handle. I remember giving up my wristwatch one Lent when I was in high school. It made me realize how dependent I was on it. But I also ended up bothering my classmates to find out what time it was, causing them unnecessary inconvenience and annoyance. And although I might actually get work done if I give up my cell phone for Lent, it might be a grave inconvenience for everyone else who may want to reach me. And I am inclined to discourage Lenten practices that force other people to endure hardship or inconvenience just so I look or feel good.

Now some people may decide to give up for Lent completely legitimate comforts like coffee or nicotine or red meat or TV or the company of family or friends. I would caution against giving up things that may cause disproportionate or unnecessary hardship. And by disproportionate and unnecessary, I mean you go into withdrawal, and it makes you miserable. And when you’re miserable, everyone else around you is miserable, because they have to put up with your whining and sulking and over-all impossibility to live with. Instead of giving something up, maybe just do with less.

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And lastly, in either instance, giving up what is superfluous or what is considered legitimate comfort, if you have to make mention of it to anyone, either to gain their sympathy or to gripe about how much grief it is causing you, your righteous deed is no longer something you have kept to yourself, and therefore, is not due any recompense whatsoever from your Father in heaven. Come up with something you are more willing to endure gladly and for a higher purpose, like sharing solidarity with those who do not have the option of giving up what you can so conveniently set aside. And take the occasion to give thanks to God for your blessings, and resolve to extend to others a portion of what you have received. In the end, this business of giving up something for Lent is intended to draw us closer to God and our neighbor. If instead it makes us envious or irritable, or overly-possessive of what we have, or distrustful and unkind toward others, if it makes us less able to pray, or it takes away our peace of mind and heart, then it is not the path to the new and glorious life God wants to share with us. And if come Easter, we just return to indulging our appetites, often with a vengeance after having endured deprivation for 40 days, what exactly have we tried to accomplish? When self-restraint is finally rewarded with unfettered access to precisely what we have been restraining ourselves from, what was the whole point all along?

Walking the journey of Lent is not intended to cause us pain or sorrow either. We are after all on our way to commemorating the sacred passion, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, that great and awesome mystery that brought about our reconciliation with God and with one another. There is cause for great rejoicing here. So the journey that leads to Easter should cause us to celebrate what God has done and continues to do on our behalf. What we know as a season of penitence is not some dark and perilous journey. We might notice more acutely the trials and struggles along the way, such as our own hardness of heart, our lack of faith, our pride and lust and laziness and resentment, but we are not without assurance that our sins are forgiven, our darkness is dispelled, and our redemption is secure.

hope puzzle

We have cause to rejoice even in this season of penitence. It is that kind of joy that proclaims the battle is won. In his first epistle, St. Peter instructs us, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame.” (3: 15-16) I am appalled when Christians who unapologetically announce Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior are just as unapologetic about their disdain for sinners like themselves, sinners for whom Christ just as much suffered, died, and rose from the dead to reconcile us to God and to one another. When we encounter believers and non-believers alike, does the faith we profess in Jesus risen from the dead attract or scare? Does it invite them closer or does it give them the creeps?

The season of Lent is a unique opportunity to focus on the saving mystery of our redemption. God has done and continues to do wonderful things on our behalf, inviting us to partake of his very life, calling us to repentance and reconciliation with one another. That is more than enough reason to rejoice and give thanks. If we seek to please God by our Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, it is because we have come to know God’s mercy and compassion, and we are grateful beyond measure, and any act of gratitude we offer is about God, not about us. We pray, fast, and give alms because God is merciful and compassionate. Does the way we live our lives as Christians give witness before those whose lives we touch sufficient reason for our hope? Something to reflect on as we enter the second week of our Lenten journey.

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Rolo B Castillo © 2016