The season of Lent is countercultural in a culture that is obsessed with individualism, entertainment, achievement, and self-actualization. We stifle our joy, turn our hearts to the cross (and, by extension, all who suffer), and commit ourselves to the practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (giving to those who are poor).
Fasting is a tricky thing. In a culture confused about food (we eat too much, or too little, and the food we eat often isn’t actually food), the invitation to fast can easily be misunderstood or misused. And, of course, as with all invitations to the practices of discipleship, it’s easy to turn “prayer, fasting, and almsgiving” into a brownie-point competition. In an achievement culture, discipleship, too, must be about “winning” – proving how good we are by doing the most good.
If that’s why you “fast” (“give something up for Lent”), then stop now. If that’s why you pray or give (“taking on a new practice for Lent”), then stop now. You won’t “win,” no matter how hard you try or how “well” you do.
Because the game is already over, and Jesus already won. There is nothing else to be “won” or “gained” by being a “better” Christian than the poor schmuck down the pew.
That’s the Grace of this season (every season): God has already done what must be done. Now we are given the task of living as if it matters.
Prayer is the gift of conscious contact with the One who has saved you. God is there – with you and for you – all the time. With a bit less bells and whistles, sparkle and noise, we are given the opportunity to listen for that still small voice that calls us Beloved.
Fasting is the gift of practicing powerlessness – feeling our vulnerability and fragility in order to turn our attention to the One who carried our weakness to the grave and left it there. True “power” is endless love, poured out for all. All other “powers” pale in comparison. Fasting helps us to realize this.
Almsgiving is the gift of seeing God dethrone every idol in every corner of our lives – particularly in our pocketbooks, where the false gods of wealth, achievement, false-security, privilege and status are likely to show up. We give to the poor because God has promised to care for us and for all. We give because it opens space in our lives to receive. We give because it creates an opportunity to be in relationship with other broken and beautiful people – among whom Jesus loves to hang out.
Throughout these forty days, the mood is sober and subdued, for life is more than shallow joy, and far too many of our neighbors (and us) are closer to the cross than we’d like to admit. But each step along the way we are accompanied by holy angels and given grace upon grace to see Jesus everywhere we go and in all that we do. And thanks be to God for that. Amen.