Pass my hair shirt, it’s that time of year again.
My answer was pretty flippant and reflected the long hard week I’d had. I was tired of talking in church words, thinking church thoughts, and doing church stuff. So I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for the question. But it still came. “Fr Duncan, what is Lent?”
The owner of the little voice deserved a better answer than the one I gave. “That which is borrowed”, I smugly replied, feeling pleased with my wit, and reassuring myself that my flippancy would go over the head of the child and not be recognized for the sin it truly was. The puzzled look on the young face confirmed that I had gotten away with another inning of crass ‘humor’ without anyone taking offense. I bat around .150 at that game.
Over twenty years later, I’m not sure I can give a better answer. An opportunity to beat yourself up? A chance to show people how holy you are? An excuse to over-indulge one appetite while comforting yourself that you’re denying another? An occasion to mortify your flesh? I don’t even know what that means but I’m sure I wouldn’t like it.
Obviously, the starting po0int for an understanding of Lent is Jesus’ hardships in the wilderness. The Gospel writers say, “Jesus ate nothing at all during those forty days, and when they were over, he was famished.” I bet he was. Stating the obvious, rather. But sometimes it’s worth stating the obvious just to make sure everyone has really got the point. And here is the point: Jesus was not doing this fast as a kind of superman.
Sure, Jesus was the Son of God, God incarnate, the Second person of the Trinity. But he faced this ordeal in the desert just like any other human being would – hungry, weak, isolated, besieged without and within by destructive thoughts and threatening surroundings. That’s good news for us. We are regular human beings (I speak purely for myself). We endure hardships and temptations in the same way Jesus did. He has been there before us. The power of the story of his temptations in the wilderness and in Gethsemane is destroyed if he faced them with supernatural power.
Enduring hardship is not just do-able but can be beneficial – especially those we choose to live with voluntarily. St Paul, writing to the Romans says, “Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; character, hope.” Character and hope are two of our most longed-for qualities, but they don’t usually grow from the soil of an easy life. Often, their survival is a painful struggle for water and nutrients in the arid paces of suffering.
In our society the idea of choosing to go without something that we could easily have is sheer lunacy. It runs counter to all we are groomed to believe. Marketers entice us with the message that if we want something we should have it. In fact, they tell us that we need it, deserve it, and, hey, it is our right to have it. Go and buy, and borrow if necessary. Yet, Lent gives us the opportunity to step away from the craziness of consumerism and remind ourselves of the truth: We are better than that. Hardship might not be pleasant, but it has great rewards for the soul that chooses that path.
We are called to break our dependency on trivia. Lent gives us the opportunity to remove the supports we usually lean on – those props that stop the tenement of our lives from crumbling to the ground. Those things that allow us to kid ourselves that we have life worked out and sewn up. With these props in place we can hide from the truth of our human condition – the deadening pain and the gaping emptiness. When we identify the props and allow God to haul them out of the way, we can fall into his secure arms and be built up once more with materials that will never decay.
You’ve probably heard people say, “Religion is just a crutch”. When someone says that to me I say “Yes. Actually. You’re right. It is a crutch. What’s yours? Because if you’re truly honest you’ll admit you have one too. The real question is: whose crutch is going to support under the weight of life’s tragedies?”
So, how about this as a definition of Lent? “An opportunity to become more like Christ.” Borrow that and see if it fits.