And I really didn’t know much about Lent prior to that, period. My own Evangelical Protestant tradition didn’t really acknowledge Lent, and so I was pretty much all-out clueless up until recently.
Don’t believe me? True story: my freshman year in college I saw a bunch of people walking around one day with, gasp, was that dirt???!!! on their foreheads. I was so unbelievably confused, and thought it must be the world’s biggest coincidence that multiple people around campus had black smudges on their faces. Should I say something? Give a knowing look while making a motion on my own face? Awkward! But then it struck me later that night that it was a Wednesday, and it was Ash Wednesday, and I put two and two together and figured out that Christians must wear ash on their foreheads on that day. Thank goodness I opted against leaning over and telling my classmate she should go wash her face!
Now of course I know what Lent is, and what it’s not, and while I’m still figuring out how I should best “do Lent”, I’ve been disturbed by the abundance of misinformation and wrong assumptions swirling around about it. Especially since it’s such an old tradition–it appears that even the earliest church had some sort of Lenten practice in preparation for Easter, as evidenced by some of Saint Irenaeus’ writings. And the VAST majority of the Christian world observes Lent, but less so American Evangelicals–who also happen to have the corner on modern Christian publications and blogging. Thus the mishmash of criticisms and misguided Lenten anecdotes floating around social media lately.
I read a recent article in particular in which the author made the case that the public observance of Lent is in opposition to the teachings of Jesus, and sums it up with this: “Put simply, Jesus doesn’t care for public displays of faith. Not then and not now.”
I confess the piece made me feel a tad grouchy, probably in part because I happened to read it on Ash Wednesday–when I was, you know, hungry. But in any case, I’m pretty sure that nowhere in any of the Gospels does Jesus condemn the public display of faith per se. Jesus was, Himself, an observant Jew. The book of Acts tells us of Saint Stephen’s rather public martyrdom. Jesus says Christians are to acknowledge Him before men. And on and on it goes. So when the author says people observing Lent shouldn’t say anything about it, I’m wondering what exactly the point is in keeping it a secret when nearly all Christians globally are participating. In other words, Lent isn’t some special “super-Christian” thing–it’s a universally observed liturgical season of the Church. It necessitates fasting and penance and waiting. Fashioned after Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the desert. Plain and simple.
Now obviously no one should be bragging about fasting, or whining and complaining and saying “oh, look at me and how great I am for doing this fast!” Or even blabbing on and on about what they’re giving up. Ob.vi.ous.ly. But can I ask you something? WHO IS ACTUALLY DOING THAT? I have many a Lent-observing friend on social media and I have yet to see anyone reflecting that sort of attitude. Most people aren’t broadcasting to their fellow Facebookians what they are fasting from, period (unless it’s Facebook itself). The ones that are, aren’t doing so in a boastful way. I did see a lot of Ash Wednesday photos, and I loved them. What a beautiful reminder of our own sin, humanity, and the hope and mercy of Jesus!
And as a quick aside, the author questions people giving up something trivial like chocolate because how could chocolate come between a person and God, but the thing the author doesn’t realize is that that’s not the point of giving something up. But more on that in a bit.
Because first we need to talk about the crux of the issue, or at least a very real part of it: Historical Christianity, or the Catholic Church, is a physical thing. It does not somehow only exist up in the clouds or in peoples’ heads and hearts, because we can SEE it. This is in somewhat of a contrast to the evangelical understanding of the universal church, which is considered more or less invisible. And the Catholic Church is not only physical Herself but also does supernatural stuff with physical things, like administering the Sacraments (the Real Presence for example, per John 6, as opposed to mere symbols). The Catholic Church is an institution founded by Jesus, both physical and supernatural, not a gnostic notion of self-realization or feel-good spirituality. And this is a big deal and makes a heck of a lot of sense because Jesus, in addition to being fully divine, was also fully human. A man. On earth. You can actually get on an airplane and visit the place where He was born, and where He lived, and where He was tempted by Satan and then where He died and rose from the dead. It’s really kind of a scandal because the incarnation is a profoundly wild idea. Humanity redeemed.
So when someone says that the public expression of faith is at odds with following Jesus, they have it backwards. Completely and 100% flipped upside-down. Because how can we follow someone we can’t see? Or claim we believe something we don’t obviously embrace? Why keep something a secret (or claim it’s invisible) when Jesus likened it to a city on a hill? Good deeds, yes, should be done discreetly insofar as we are able and yes, we must take care to guard against pride…but that doesn’t mean we refrain from volunteering at a soup kitchen, praying outside of an abortion clinic, or for that matter going to Mass because somebody! will see! us. Jesus’ oft-referenced (but just as often misattributed) problem with the Pharisees was that they were hypocrites with corrupt hearts, in spite of their very public and dramatic claims to faith–NOT that they were openly pious.
And if we are approaching Lent properly, there IS no room for pride. We give up something pleasurable for 40 days not because it was getting in the way of our relationship with the Lord, but in hopes of rightly ordering our lives and growing better at mastering our passions. So that we can better combat sin. We fast from food on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and from meat on each of the Fridays during Lent, to commemorate Christ’s crucifixion and in order to focus and contemplate. We receive ashes on Ash Wednesday as a sign of mourning and reminder that we are but dust–“Repent and believe the Gospel” is what my priest said as he applied them to my forehead. We go to Confession at least once to be absolved of our sins and to ready our hearts for the joy of the Resurrection–otherwise known as Easter, the highest Holy Day of the year. Everything we do for Lent has to do with the interior state of the soul, but it shouldn’t be a secret that we are participating. It’s what Christians have been doing in one form or another for millennia. We also stand and recite the Nicene Creed at Mass each week. This is what we confess to be true. This is what we believe.
So please, before you decide that anyone openly living out their faith is some sort of horrible Pharisee, do a little research. Take the time to understand the practice of Lent and how it enriches the life of the Church. Consider that when you see Catholics chatting about Lent on social media, they’re probably not thinking twice about it (and boasting is the farthest thing from their mind), because it’s normative within their subculture–as opposed to some above-and-beyond, holier-than-thou experiment. If your particular faith tradition doesn’t observe Lent, think about doing some reading about what each liturgical season looks like for most Christians around the world. And if you decide you want to join us in observing this Lenten season, remember that it’s not a flippant “oh, hey, I’m going to stop eating cookies so I can fit back into my jeans from high school”. It is a reverent, solemn, contemplative sort of thing whose aim is to bring us into closer relationship and union with Christ. Jesus is the point. Always.
And if you want to do something really cool? Find a local Catholic parish where you can pray the Stations of the Cross on Friday evenings. It is an incredible way to experience and remember Jesus as He carried His cross.
Protestant, Catholic, Pharisee or otherwise, I hope to see you there!