This week “Fat Tuesday” will bring the revelry of Mardi Gras to a close, and Ash Wednesday will launch the Christian faithful into the Lenten season. Lent, popular with many believers, is a forty-day period of time before Easter, intended as a season of repentance, spiritual cleansing, and prayer.
It is common to “give up” something during this time, maybe chocolate, coffee, sex, television, alcohol, or shopping – out of spiritual devotion. The church I grew up in was fundamentalist. Thus, my elders despised anything that resembled “high church.” Candles, robes, liturgies, seasons of the ecclesiastical calendar – these were anathema, or worse, Catholic. Better to be impulsive and unstructured than appear as a Papist.
The pastor delivered his sermon with plenty of emotional pleading, but without notes. To rely upon such was to “quench the Spirit.” Songs were sung by all, not by a few professionals. Prayers were offered extemporaneously by those in the congregation, never at a pulpit. A pre-programmed “Order of Service” was never printed for such an act was heresy.
Thus, I grew up thinking of Lent as something under an unkept bookshelf or what was privately picked from one’s navel. That it was an intentional act of refocusing, an exercise in spiritual formation, was completely foreign to me. We had summer revivals for matters like that. Besides, fundamentalists have very little to “give up” in the first place. They have already outlawed most things remotely enjoyable.
But in a strange twist for we who are theological nerds, Ash Wednesday falls this year on Valentine’s Day. You may see a few lovers cooing longingly at each other across a romantic, restaurant dinner this week with ashes smudged across their foreheads (I’m certain the chocolate, sex, and alcohol prohibitions can be delayed a few hours).
Still, Lent isn’t a bad discipline, especially in light of the celebratory Advent season that lingers in our memory and on our credit card statements, a time of brazen indulgence. Giving up a few things, rather than acquiring or devouring everything in narcissistic enjoyment, is a healthy change of pace.
And in the true spirit of this votive season, our “giving up” is actually a “giving away.” Lent isn’t about self-flagellating punishment, but it is about sacrifice. Sacrifice means “to make sacred.” When we experience a self-imposed loss, a loss borne out of willing compassion, it truly is a holy act. That is the example left to us by Jesus of Nazareth, a man with more than a heavenly message; he became the epitome of sacrificial love.
He emptied himself of his rights, privileges, and ambitions for the sake of others, not so he could be “spiritual” or put on the airs of some holy roller who could give up sweets for a few weeks. No, it was to show a beleaguered, spiteful world what love is and can be, truly what the Apostle Paul called a “more excellent way.” Seen in this light, love is no sacrifice at all.
Photo by Thuong Do