Here in Australia, the weather tends to connive with the idea that Lent is a time of self-denial and penance. Or at least that’s true in Melbourne, where I live, and in Canberra, my home town. The deciduous trees seem to be joining in a communal ascetical practice as they begin to lose their leaves. Their act of letting go seems to invite parallel acts of shedding for us during Lent: we too are invited to be stripped of selfishness and pride as we enter into this period of preparation for Easter.
This invitation to self-denial and ascetical practices often seem to some people to capture what is worst about Christianity, and perhaps about Catholicism in particular. It seems to convey all of the gloomiest stereotypes about Christians: as a pleasure-depriving, joyless, and even masochistic people. But is that what Lent, and for that matter Christianity, is really all about?
Let’s look to the liturgy to help us get a better handle on Lent. In the old translation of the preface for Lent we used to say,
Each year you give us this joyful season when we prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery with mind and heart renewed.
In the new translation which we will use for the first time this year it says:
For each year by your gracious gift your faithful await the sacred paschal feasts with the joy of minds made pure, so that, more eagerly intent on prayer and on the works of charity, and participating in the mysteries by which they have been reborn, they may be led to the fullness of grace you bestow on your sons and daughters.
The intended meaning in both translations is the same: Lent is a joyful time. Of course, the Liturgy of the Word during Lent will also call us to fasting, to alms-giving, to prayer, to reflect upon the temptations of Jesus, to deny ourselves and take up our cross… So which is it? Is Lent a season of self-denial or a time of joy?
The answer of course, is both.
Lent is most definitely a time of self-denial. But it shouldn’t be a case of simply going without something we like for forty days as a kind of endurance test of our wills. The practices of self-denial that we adopt during this time are actually to do with expressing who or what is really master of our lives. And who or what is master of our lives is expressed in and through our bodies, which is why Lent is irreducibly physical and tangible.
When we deny ourselves some food during Lent, we are reminding ourselves that there is more to life than ‘eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’. When we give alms to the poor during Lent we remind ourselves that the acquisition of wealth is not the goal of our lives. When we decide to devote extra effort to refraining from gossip or detraction of others, and try to speak more edifyingly of others, or when we fast from always having control of the airwaves around us, we are concretely reminding ourselves that we are not the centre of the universe, that our lives are not about us.
I’m not being dualistic or anti-body here. We don’t treat our bodies as if they are slaves that must be whipped into shape, or machines that we must master. If you want that, watch The Biggest Loser. What we are doing is recognising that it is in and through our body that we express our deepest commitments: and to commit to the love of God and of others is not possible if our bodily actions are always directed towards ourselves.
Self-denial will usually cost us something, and it can even be painful at some level. That’s not because we should be damaging our health, but because we often experience withdrawal symptoms from whatever we are trying to cut out from our lives. The little masters that often have hold of our lives do not give up too easily: it can be very painful to be silent when you would rather hog the conversation, to say no to a drink because you feel you need it to relax or unwind, or to pass up on a movie and give the price of the ticket to Project Compassion.
What we begin to discover as we practice these ascetical disciplines is the emergence of true joy. Joy is found in the love of God and of others, which is why prayer and almsgiving are as important a part of Lent as fasting and self-denial. The acts of self-denial are for joy.
The word ‘Lent’ actually means ‘Spring-time’. But maybe we southern hemisphere-dwellers have the advantage here. Which brings me back to the Autumn leaves. Because before they fall from the trees they change colours, from a fairly uniform green to the most dazzling array of reds, oranges, purples and rich brown shades, with many variations in between. The streets of Melbourne and Canberra are breathtakingly beautiful during Lent. The leaves are dying of course, even as they change colour. But the tree is still very much alive. Something is dying during Lent. But that’s so something new can be born. And even the process of dying is beautiful for those with eyes to see.