Someone shared a post that advertised a book called The Top 10 Tastiest Meatless Meals for Fridays in Lent! You’ll Never Know They’re Meatless! I had to laugh just a little bit. I’ll take it. Meat is great, and if I can give it up without really giving it up, all the better!
Isn’t this just like us? I mean, isn’t the point of giving up meat supposed to be that we do notice it? Aren’t they supposed to not be the “tastiest”?
It’s like if I decide (for some insane reason) to live only on bread and water during Lent, but then have mandarin-flavoured Perrier, and garlic rosemary focaccia with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and just a sprinkle of bacon salt to give it a little je ne sais quois. It still counts, right? Lent is getting tastier every moment.
I find it hard to be creative during Lent. We have our family practices that go without question, but those personal moments of sacrifice are harder to find. I find myself checking the calendar for any upcoming solemnities just so that I can eat more. The temptation to think “I’m doing enough” creeps in at every opportunity.
Of course, our Lord isn’t watching us with a checklist, taking count of every brownie we put down, but that isn’t the point. So, what is? Conversations that I have with people show me that I’m not alone in wondering. Do we fast simply to feel hunger?
“I’m giving up chocolate to lose five pounds.” “I’m cleaning out one closet a day to de-junk during Lent.” And then there is the increasingly more common, “I’m not giving up anything this Lent. Instead I’m going to do positive things. Pope Francis said …”
Well, there’s kind of a problem with these, especially the third, and if you’ll bear with me for a minute, I’ll explain why.
Obviously, all positive acts of charity are good. I think it’s awesome to actively make the effort to visit the elderly, speak well of those we dislike, or donate food to the food bank. Cleaning out closets is a great idea, and I’m happy to help anyone in their Lenten growth by offering them a houseful to work on.
But those positive, charitable choices are the expected actions of every person professing Christ, every single day. That’s 365 days of the year, not 40. There is no season of charity in the life of a Christian. We don’t have that option, because charity isn’t a part-time offer.
Christ calls believers to “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). That’s a tough teaching. But a lot of Christ’s words were tough. People walked away from salvation because of the tough things he said. If we want to make any headway on that whole “perfection in charity” thing, then it takes a lot. To grow in holiness requires the work of the Holy Spirit. We are in need of his grace.
My children's catechism describes the work of the Holy Spirit as being filled with living waters. I love this image. Our soul is the garden, and he pours himself out and into us. We are given life, spiritual health, refreshment. We are made clean as we are washed in his love. But how can we be filled with his living waters if we are already full of ourselves? This is where the season of Lent comes in.
While our entire lives are the season of growing in charity, the 40 days are the season of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. That’s the full title; “Lent, the season of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving”!
Fasting and alms-giving require you to “give something up." There is no second option – “Well, if you don’t like fasting, you can always clean out a closet.” No. You are meant to feel hunger.
Our hunger, our empty pockets, are meant to draw us into a desert, to join Jesus in suffering (it hurts humans a lot to give up food and money). And when we detach from wants of our flesh we are naturally emptied, to make space for the living waters being offered. When we detach from the things of this world, as simple as skipping a meal may seem, we are casting aside the grip those things have on us. We empty out the self to be filled with the Other.
Max Lucado wrote, “To discover grace is to discover God’s utter devotion to you, his stubborn resolve to give you a cleansing, healing, purging love that lifts the wounded back to their feet.”
God’s gift of grace can only grow within us if there is first room for it to be poured out. That very same grace is what feeds us and sends us out into a full life of charity.