A Penitential Season (A Reflection on Lent)

Seasons and Holidays always have a chicken and the egg effect.  Is the season or holiday where it is because something happened then, or was there already a celebration of some sort that was infused with theological meaning?  The classic atheist taunt that Christmas was originally the Roman Saturnalia is an example. Which I’ve always taken as just strange.  What if it was, who really cares.  Add onto that the question of how strong must the theological meaning of the birth of Christ have been to completely take over a pagan festival?  The cynic might reply, “you think Santa Claus and black Friday aren’t a pagan celebration?” Yes, yes.

This type of question goes back to the OT feasts. There were three primary ones: Passover, Pentecost or Weeks, and Sukkot or Booths. The theological meanings are rather clear.  Passover was God bringing Israel out of bondage in Egypt.  Pentecost or Weeks was when Moses received the law on Mt. Sinai.  Sukkot’s theology is rooted in the wilderness wonderings and God’s providence for all Israel.  All three holidays also have an agricultural basis that the bible acknowledges.  Passover planting, Weeks the early wheat harvest (the Holy Land being a place of multiple harvests) and Sukkot the big harvest.  We live in a sacramental world. Everyday things are infused with the Spirit.

Lent’s chicken and the egg is something that we moderns probably forget. Your grand-parents, maybe your great-grandparents, certainly further back didn’t. By late February what had been stored for the winter was probably getting repetitive. Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras was the day you took out the last of the really good stuff from the larder, if you had any left.  Did you start the Lenten fast because of the theological meaning, or because all you had left in the pantry was wheat for bread and scraps for soup?

Living in a sacramental world I think can go both ways.  The material reality of our existence can point toward spiritual meaning.  Likewise a Spiritual truth can suggest a material practice.  In our world of material abundance I’m not exactly sure we’ve worked out what a penitential season means. Fasting can be meaningful, but it is certainly better when the entire community is doing it.  And not even Rome seems to have the ability to mandate the fast. The Spiritual truth that Lent captures is that we have all fallen short of the Glory of God. What a fitting material practice would be escapes me.  I’m often tempted to say we are all living a long lent. We are surrounded by a material abundance unimaginable to most of human history, yet far from being fat, dumb and happy, we are collectively the most medicated and depressed society ever. Man lives not by abundance, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.  And when God withdraws his word, no amount of abundance can replace it.

Lent as a season not to give things up, but to pick things up anew would strike me as better. What practices have our abundance squeezed out? Has Netflix eaten our prayer?  Return to prayer.  Has the BMW payment squeezed out charity? Recommit to alms giving. Has fast food and business ended the family meal? Make room at the table for something from scratch that begins with prayer.  And if your family won’t join you, ask your neighbors, until someone accepts.  Lent as a season to choose the things that truly feed might be a meaningful material practice. If you try, let me know.

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