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Remembering what Lent is for

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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.

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