Isn’t that always the question? As if that is the reason for the season. Growing up, everything I remember about Lent circled around the acts of self-denial – what food, entertainment, or habit one would give up and how hard it was to deny oneself of that thing. It was not always made clear that the denial was meant to help one think about God and Christ’s sacrifice.
Of course it’s understandable that the deeper meaning of Lent can be missed. Even elsewhere in this bulletin we mention the religious traditions rituals and “Lenten obligations,” which are easier to promote, understand, and implement than spirituality and faith. We Catholics understand rules. It is far easier to tell kids (and ourselves) to obey rules than to explain to them why we should desire to act rightly. We can end up following the rules simply because… well because that is what we do, that is how we think of religion. In Lent, too often we are denying ourselves for the sake of denial. We give up chocolate or Facebook thinking that act of denial is the purpose of Lent. And we end up missing the point.
Lent isn’t about denial, it is about transformation. It is the season in which we prepare to encounter the mystery of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection by endeavoring to become more Christ like ourselves. Transformation is about letting ourselves be filled with God’s presence so that we can be shaped by God’s grace. But we have to make room for God’s grace. We have to empty ourselves to make room for God – and that may mean Facebook, chocolate, or whatever else takes up time, space and energy in your life. And so we give up things/habits as a way of beginning the transformation.
In our faith tradition, this process has a word: kenosis – the “self-emptying” of one’s own will and becoming entirely receptive to God’s divine will. Denying ourselves in order to allow God to fill us. The Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting and alms-giving help prepare us to be transformed. We deny ourselves so that we can be reborn as new creations – to live more fully as the Kingdom citizens God desires us to be – to go and do the good that God would have us do.
But meanwhile, here and now, until we get to that place of rest, during this time in which we are toiling away, while trials and temptations never cease, let us do good. There is always a medicine available, to be applied to what are practically daily wounds; the medicine consists of the good works of mercy. I mean, if you want to obtain God’s mercy, be merciful yourself. If you refuse to show humanity to a human being, though human yourself, God will refuse you divinity; that is to say, the imperishable immortality by which he makes us gods. After all, God doesn’t need anything from you; you, though, need everything from God. (St Augustine, Sermon 259, 3)