The way to preach the greatness of what Christians call Lent is to preach the demanding side of it. Tell those around you to give things up until it hurts a bit, till they feel an ache inside that they now can’t pretend to fill with double-stuffed Oreos and beers and binge-watched television series. Then tell them to pray more.
Complaints about “materialism” at Christmas have never really bothered me. For those who believe in the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, there is a real lesson about love: it isn’t just a “spiritual” thing. It expresses itself in gifts that one can see, hear, taste, and touch. God gave the gift of his presence in a small human package wrapped in swaddling clothes. That gift grew up and ate and drank with people, healing them with his words and with his touch. Those who follow him should indeed celebrate his presence by deeds of a material nature—gifts of food and drink, toys and socks, and beef jerky, candy, and jars of black olives in stockings.
But there is another season of divinely ordered materialism in the Christian year. It is called Lent. It begins for Western Christians on February 26, while Eastern Orthodox Christians will start on March 2 with Shrove Monday. The Western start date is called Ash Wednesday. On that day, one of the most popular days of the Christian year in the Catholic Church—despite its not being a “day of obligation” (i.e. required attendance)—people come to hear a priest tell them they will die and rub ashes on their foreheads. They also hear a call to repentance, a word that does not mean simply showing sorrow for sins, but a turning away from sin and from disordered lives to a life of doing God’s will and living in his way.
While there are differences in emphasis and the details of practice in Eastern and Western Lenten practices, both emphasize that it is a time of intensified prayer, fasting, and particularly almsgiving. In other words, the material element is key. Certain foods and activities are given up and a greater giving of money and goods to others is taken on.
Some religious people have tried to emphasize only the positive side of the season. “Don’t give things up,” they say. “Take things on!” While perhaps well-meaning people, their advice is not very wise. There is a good reason why the prophets of “simplifying” and “dopamine fasts” and “mindfulness” have come to have such a welcome in our own homes. Most of us know that our homes and our calendars, our minds and imaginations, are all cluttered with a fullness that does not make us feel satisfied, but frazzled and empty. Our closets are full of clothes we do not wear and our vacations render us in desperate need of a vacation. Another night has been wasted searching to know if we exist on the internet. We are stretched too thin by our material wealth and strength and connectivity to “take on” any more.
No, the way to preach the greatness of what Eastern Christians call “Great Lent” is to preach the demanding side of it. Tell people to give things up. Even if unconsciously, most people are looking for an excuse to get off their treadmills and create more space in their houses and stop spending their money in a higgledy-piggledy search for fulfillment. They want to be emptied and they want to be truly filled. They want to know God and also know those strange creatures made in his image. They want to have solitude and silence but also communion and a joyful soundtrack to their lives. They are tired of being lonely and overwhelmed by noise.
Tell them, priests and preachers, bloggers and podcasters, apologists, catechists, moms, dads, and neighbors. Tell them to give things up until it hurts a bit, till they feel an ache inside that they now can’t pretend to fill with double-stuffed Oreos and beers and binge-watched television series that they don’t actually like that much anyway.
Then move on to the positive message. Tell them to pray more. St. Paul says the goal is constant prayer. For many of us inconstant prayer would be a step up. A priest friend tells me I could change my life by acknowledging that I am in the presence of God six times a day. Tell them that is at least a baseline. Prayer upon waking, before one’s meals, before bed, and one for the heaven of it.
It’s when one opens one’s ears to hear God’s voice that one starts to hear the voices of others. After all, God’s voice is not one that drowns out everything else. Still and small, it makes us listen more intently—to try to figure out where it is coming from. Quite often it comes from people whom we have ceased to listen to, really. One’s wife, one’s children, co-workers, neighbors, the people at the grocery store, the ones on the street corner. All of them have voices that are calling out to us in different ways.
It is a risk, those voices. They will ask us for things that they want or need. They will ask us for our presence or our help when we would rather be left alone. They will ask us for things we cannot give them or ought not give them. We will have to face up to the challenge of not shutting our ears. After all, the cries of the poor and the needy—and who among us is not that in some way? Remember Mother Teresa’s observation that the spiritual poverty of the rich West was much greater than that of the poor in Calcutta—must be heard by us. The answer is not to cease to hear them but to keep hearing the God in whose image they are made. To hear what God wants us to give them. Maybe it’s a gift, maybe a loan, but it might be something else that’s even more difficult: a difficult truth, a hug, help on a job that is unappealing, the gift of our time when we would rather be with others more attractive and pleasant to us.
The works we do might be small or they might be large, but the Lenten ideal is that they are gifts from and of ourselves. We give freely during this season of giving because we can’t take it with us—from dust we came and to dust we shall return.
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The featured image is “The Battle Between Carnival and Lent” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.