A Lenten State of Mind

They called it “peanut butter season” in the Roman Catholic factory town where I lived in pre-Vatican II days. Fasting, especially the loss of meat in one’s lunch bucket, was required for Lent, so they complied, without knowing why, Mother Church essentially giving them the maternal reason, “Because I said so.” There is something to be said for discipline and obedience, as Roman Catholics had back in those days. And certainly Anglicans, by whatever name back then, did not stand out as more zealous than Roman Catholics in Lenten observance, so we should not criticize.

Nevertheless, if a Lent of required fasting and unthinking self-denial kind of misses the point, ignoring the whole concept of fasting for Lent, much more the modern style, misses it even more. First of all, Lent is not an independent season off by itself. It needs to be seen in the context of the Paschal cycle, in which it serves as the preparatory time for the fifty-day celebration of Easter, the central event of all earthly history. Secondly, Lent is a spiritual journey to that central event of Resurrection, not a dead end, a penance without absolution. Thirdly, just as the Resurrection is with us every day, with Easter season being a focus for a time or an event which is ubiquitous and omnipresent, so too Lent is a state of mind, with the season being a time to focus on the internal pilgrimage we walk on a daily basis.

With that in mind, we need to stress that Lent lasts all year, just as Easter does. There are those who have taken that thought to mean the Christian life is meant to be a dour and joyless Puritan walk, characterized by Eugene McCarraher as “ostentatious drabness.” In their minds, this “vale of tears” is a test meant to be endured, not a gift to be enjoyed and celebrated. Existence in the fallen world can indeed be full of tears, if not individually, then certainly in our collective actions as a species, a far cry from the intentions of the Creator. Fasting and extra devotions will neither help improve that nor earn us merit, by themselves.

Only when Lenten actions and thoughts are directed towards the Divine goal, already achieved but not yet completed, will they be useful. It is a goal fulfilled without our help, not in need of our efforts. But in response to the gift, God-given grace and love is meant to be shared, and the mandate of being the stewards of the earth is meant to be exercised effectively and obediently. Existence is not primarily about tears, but is full of the joy of a victory greater than any possible sorrow, in that gift of grace. 

Thus, we travel through life living both Lent and Easter concurrently. Sin and grace are intertwined (see Paul’s comments in Romans 3). Martin Luther commented that we are simul justus et peccator, simultaneously justified and sinner. This confronts much conservative American Protestant theology, which asserts that people don’t sin after their conversion; “Once I was a sinner, now I am a Christian,” as the old revival hymn puts it. The only problem with this is that it is blatantly not true. If a read of St. Paul, Luther, Jesus or Calvin does not clarify this for you, simply observe the flawed words and deeds of the converted.

What, then, to do with the season of Lent? 

1. Keep in mind that Lent is a pilgrimage towards the Cross and beyond it to the empty Tomb. It is not an exercise in austerity and denial. Quite the opposite, the Lenten journey is the contemplation of the Cross, coming ever closer as we travel spiritually, where the sacrificial action of God’s love overwhelms us, and results in immense thanksgiving and joy in our hearts, even as we grasp the magnitude of the sacrifice:

See from his head, his hands, his feet
Sorrow and love flow mingled down
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet
Or thorns compose so rich a crown
                      (Hymn by Isaac Watts)

2. Lent is provided, therefore, for our use in preparing for a proper reception of Pascha. It is a time to do an internal analysis of who we are, of the failures and shortcomings we own, of our faith or lack of it, of our helplessness in trying to fix it ourselves. But this is absolutely not a DIY project. There is generally little joy in the analysis. Rather, as it unfolds, it is more a matter of sadness for lost opportunities to be a good steward, repentance for some of our actions or lack of actions or lack thereof, the whole list of how we have messed up in thought, word and deed - for what we have done and left undone. But there is joy in raising our heads and looking down the road to the Cross and the realization that what we cannot fix has been lifted from us by Someone who can and does fix it and forgives us in the process.

3. The role of fasting in this may be best illustrated by my own experience. Growing up in a Midwestern household, a day without meat was unthinkable. It was an atheist household, where the goal of life was held to be material acquisition, not the reception of Divine love. But as a young adult, God’s grace had found me, and I was living in a city where many of my friends were Romanians. They took Lent seriously, with the tradition of no meat or fish at all for the forty days. I did not understand how they could manage it. But I tried it with them, and realized at the end of Lent that I would actually miss the delicious Lenten food they served, rather than the meat I had foresworn. It turns out the purpose of the fast was not to deny myself and wallow in pious self-pity and admiration for my sacrifice. Instead, it was an orientation to a stewardship of my life, starting with what I ate. 

Coming out the other end of the season, the take away thought was to carry the Lenten state of mind through the year. In the Eastern monastic tradition, the abstention from meat becomes a way of life all year, a stewardship which tries to harmonize with the Lord’s earth and not kill our fellow creatures in His garden. Of course the most important fast is to abstain from sin, which widens out the stewardship to a whole new level, and certainly is to be observed all year long. 

The motivation in all of this does not arise from an attempt to achieve our own meritorious righteousness. Nor is it driven simply by a sense of duty. It comes from a realization that only God could achieve the victory of the Cross, only He could repair my brokenness, and in His love, He chose to do just that. The Lenten state of mind faces the reality of the fallen world, both around me and within me. The great joy of that state of mind is that God has done for me what I could not do myself, and poured His love out to quench the flames of sin and failure. 

Thank you, Lord, eucharisto, I thank you for your grace. Having received the gift, help me to reflect it in my stewardship of the earth and to share it with those around me.  


Forward in Christ

Proclaiming the Faith and Order of the Church, given to us by Christ.