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Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103:8-14; II Corinthians 5:20-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Christianity is about learning to die well. And to die well, a person must live well.
Each season of nature tells the story of death and rebirth; the land grows cold, then is covered in snow and ice; as the world warms and things begin to grow again, the world becomes alive. Death gives way to life, and Lent gives way to Easter, to resurrection.
People will sometimes criticize the practice of Lent, of fasting, of self-reflective repentance. But it is necessary, it is healthy, and it is life-giving to look at ourselves and to say no to certain things. We are not gods, though we think we are! And ultimately, Lent is about growth in love: Love of God, Love of Neighbor, and Love of Self.
1. The 40 days of Lent are meant to draw you closer to God, to love God, and to rely on God. God is the source of life, the one who makes the sun shine and crops grow, the one on whom our very existence rests. As we live in our climate-controlled homes, eating whatever we want, and tapping away at our phones, we forget that it can all go away like that.
Jesus was in the desert for 40 days, a time of lack and relying on the Father. We too need to take times to recognize that our lives are not our own, but gifts. Lent is a time not for taking away so you can metaphorically beat yourself; it is a time to declare that God is enough for you, and you recognize that all you have you have because he gave it.
2. As we grow in love of God, we are also to grow in love of our neighbor. We are here to love one another, which means a sacrifice of self. What can you do for another? What can you give? How can you lift up the low, and encourage the mournful, and defend the weak and oppressed? Fasting is always subservient to love. There is a story of ancient monks who lived in the deserts of Egypt. One asked another, if one brother fasted 6 days a week and was very disciplined, but the other served the sick, which is more acceptable to God? The answer is that the one who fasted could never equal the one who served the sick, because the law of love is preeminent.
This is why we receive the warning about hypocrisy. Midnight Mass gives one of the best examples of Christian hypocrisy I’ve seen. One character, Bev, does all the things someone is supposed to (serve the church, etc.). She also hated the poor old addict Joe, poisoning his dog. She tries to make the Muslim father feel as unwelcome as possible. Nominal Christians she dismisses. She is holy by appearances, but evil within.
3. Which takes us to the third point: Growing in love of self. We are made in God’s image, but we distort that with our selfishness, our greed, and our prejudices. This season is given to us so we can take a step back and look at who we are, and seek God’s grace to be transformed into something more, something better. This is not accomplished by our efforts, but by repenting of our sins, and seeking God’s grace. If you truly love yourself, something assumed in Scripture, then you want what is best for yourself. And what is best for you is honesty, humility, and above all Love.
Hypocrisy is as much self-deception as it is deceiving others. It is telling ourselves a lie about who we really are, and who we should be. And I think we may be in one of the most hypocritical ages of the Church ever. Phony smiles and fake hellos are sinister and destructive, and I would take an honest atheist over a hypocritical Christian any day.
Lent means stopping, reflecting, repenting, and therefore growing in Love. One of the hardest things I think we can do is to sit quietly in our rooms, alone with only our own thoughts, with only ourselves. But the good news is that doing so is not a road to despair, to simply saying “oh I’m so terrible!” Lent is not about self-hatred, but being honest and courageous enough to look at ourselves, to see our weakness and shame, and to say “you are not my god.” Lent is about seeking the God whose only desire is that an abundance of love be poured out on the world. We observe Lent so that we can grow in Love. Growth of any kind is painful. But in the end, the greater pain is looking back and seeing how much we have not grown. Let this Lenten season, therefore, be a time where you learn to Love.