The Traditional Discipline of Lent Again
Call it Mardi Gras – “Fat Tuesday” – or Shrove Tuesday or in some places even Doughnut Day. It’s also called Carnival, “farewell to meat.” The Orthodox Church marks Clean Monday, when we tidy the house as a symbol for tidying our lives. Clean Monday comes after Forgiveness Sunday when we offer one another words of forgiveness. In the west, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent with a symbol of mortality. No matter how it is observed, Lent began in all churches this week. Let me push the topic further by asking a question.
Do these introductory rituals inaugurate real practice? In so many churches these are simply moments of observance that introduce no pathway. Carnival has, of course, come to mean unparalleled licentiousness in some cultures. Is it followed by any attempt at self-control, restraint, or contemplation? This is an honest question; I don’t know the answer. I am not the judge, but I am curious.
Originally Lent had a double emphasis. It was an intense period of study for those who would become Christian by baptism at Easter. This was and is called catechesis and it is still practiced in many churches.
Dovetailed with this study was discipline; the two went together. The disciplines are to help us rein in our unruly passions. We struggle to become more loving and open by taking the focus off our own needs, wants, and desires. This calls for both intellectual and behavioral work.
For centuries, the biblical lessons at the beginning of Lent have been taken from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew) where Jesus enjoins prayer, fasting, and charity, all done quietly, without fanfare. As far back as we have records of what was read at worship, we find these lessons. Prayer, fasting, and charity are the heart of Lent.
Note two things from the days when these practices began. First, fasting and feasting occurred in cycles. They belong in tension with one another. Fasting without feasting leads to monotony and feasting without fasting leads to gluttony. That’s why those of us who keep the Lenten discipline end with a feast on Easter. After denial comes refreshment, even a little harmless excess. One without the other doesn’t make sense spiritually, physically, or psychologically. But you have to experience this yourself to get it.
Secondly, note that all Lenten practice is grounded in one simple idea: to draw closer to God by ridding yourself of alienating distractions whether mental or physical. In the words of Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky (of blessed memore),a 20th Century Orthodox bishop: “Reason is not faith’s enemy, but rather stupidity, distraction, inattention, and stubbornness are the enemies of faith.” We pay attention to the details of our lives, to self-assessment, repentance, and commitment to our calling in Christ.
Lent is for Christians. Nobody else need pay attention to it. Our works avail for nothing if we offer them to prove we are good. We all know inwardly, however, that we are called to a fuller and deeper humanity and must struggle to achieve it. Lent is about moving toward fuller humanity. The Lenten prayer Orthodox Christians use daily sums it up:
O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, faintheartedness, lust of power, and idle talk.
But give rather to your servant the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love.
Yea O Lord and King, make me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother; for blessed are You unto ages of ages. Amen.