Remembering what Lent is for
Christians are weird. We celebrate the wrong things, like death, and pretty gruesome deaths at
that. We insist on perfection, but look around and we see only fellow sinners, the opposite of
the perfect. We embrace asceticism, the discipline of giving up good things, so that we can look
to better things. OK, that last one is actually pretty common—think dieters or those training in
a sport—but our good things are a bit more distant.
In this, we are merely following our Redeemer and Shepherd, Jesus, who liked to engage
unexpected persons in deep conversations, as when he spoke to a Samaritan woman at a well
about true, living water. He was good at such things.
Unfortunately, our own efforts at asceticism are often not so effective. We forget the goal and
focus on the giving up, which has the effect of seeming to be interested only in being miserable,
which can make God look like someone who likes suffering. We see this especially during Lent.
Lent is often reduced to giving up desserts and going to confession. Is that what it is all about?
Not at all.
Lent, our forty days modeled on Jesus in the desert, is first intended as a time of preparation for
catechumens preparing to join the Church at Easter. They have come to recognize how thirsty
they are for the living water that Jesus promised to the Samaritan woman at the Well of Jacob.
Jesus will quench their thirst in baptism, and continue to quench it in the Eucharist, when they
receive the very Body and Blood of Christ that alone can satisfy their longing. These new
members, if faithful, can remind the rest of us how blessed we are in being part of God's family
with regular access to the nourishment our souls long for.
Secondary, Lent is a time for sinners, we who have gone astray in our way through the desert,
to get back on course by following again the Shepherd who came to guide us. Many of us have
forgotten the pleasure of a simple drink of water to satisfy our thirst.
What Lent is not, though we tend to make it so, is a time to call the righteous and observant to
a change of heart. Jesus himself noted that he came to call sinners to repent, not the righteous.
So Lent is not so much for the faithful and active, except insofar as they are also sinners. It is for
us a time of preparation and purification to prepare for Easter, a time to consider and renew
our observance, to turn back from the negligence of routine and rouse our spirits anew with the
joy of the Kingdom. This is what Jesus did at Jacob's Well in his dialog with the Samaritan
woman: he roused her thirst and promised himself, the living water that could satisfy her.
So fasting is not about making ourselves miserable for six weeks just because we can, or
because God wants us to suffer. Fasting is a time of training and preparation, giving up some
good things to remind ourselves that we are looking forward to even better things, a reminder
that we do not constantly need these small goods, but have been destined for far greater and
more lasting things.