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Take your self out of Lent


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Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 02/19/21

A largely spiritless approach to Lent, oriented around self-improvement, misses the mark.

Does this sound like a Lenten hymn to you?

He’s making a list,
Checking it twice,
Gonna find out who’s naughty or nice…

No, not likely. It’s a few lines from a secular Christmas ditty (“Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”) from 1934. But if we tweak it, we could get something closer to what a lot of people view as a good approach to Lent:

You better watch out
You better not cry
You better not doubt
I’m telling you why
Pharisee is coming to town

He’s making a list,
Checking it twice,
Gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.
Pharisee is coming to town

He knows he must be holy

To see God face-to-face

So he’ll make himself be holy and …

He’ll do so without grace!

You better watch out…

A bit of an exaggeration, admittedly, but, sadly, not so far off the mark. The approach to Lent described above turns the traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving into demanding, dieting, and tax deductions. It’s a largely spiritless approach to Lent, oriented around self-improvement, with an emphasis on self. Self as the inspiration, self as the means, self as the goal: “I deserve to like myself more than I do; I am sufficiently wise and good to make myself even more acceptable to myself; I will make myself the best version of myself, according to myself.”

“Making” God like us

The Pharisees are often the preferred villains of countless books, essays, and sermons—that’s something of an injustice to them, and I confess that I’ve contributed to that injustice here. Nonetheless, they are (among other things) a trope useful to illustrate a familiar characteristic. They represent those common yet faulty attempts to attain holiness within the limits of our own insights, standards, and efforts. We know we need to be fixed, we’re going to fix ourselves, and then God will have to like us! That’s wrong for more reasons than I can count here. What’s the alternative? Let me give an example.

At the start of Lent as a young priest, preaching to university students, I said: “Here’s what I think you should give up for Lent—alcohol and promiscuity. We all know that these are downfalls for most of you. If they’re not, that’s great. But something in your life other than God has power over you, and demands that you withdraw your love and loyalty from God. Lent is the time to admit that we all have idols in our lives. This Lent, find out what those idols are, find out how they got there, and get rid of them.” Suffice to say, that caused a bit of a stir.

We all have allowed idols into our lives. They’ve set up altars and thrones in our souls. We need to get rid of them, and we need to admit that we can’t do so on our own. So let’s revisit the traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and let’s avoid the caricature of Pharisees trying to save themselves. Let’s avoid the Pharisaical temptation of trying to make God like us while ignoring that it is “a humble, contrite heart” that God will not spurn. (Psalm 51:17)

3 Pillars

The work of Lent is to get us out of ourselves and into the heart of Christ. Prayer becomes a surrender, a self-giving, a learning to receive from God who owes us nothing but wants to give us himself. Fasting becomes a reminder that the body need not rule us and that there are some hungers no food can satisfy. Almsgiving becomes not a bribe or a tax dodge but a reminder that if we grasp less, then God can embrace us more. We do all these things not as a strategy for self-improvement but as a form of self-emptying, in imitation of and in union with Christ. Lent is about learning to be conformed to Christ, loving as he loves, sharing in his dying and rising.

It has been said that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” We can express our devotion to Christ by imitating his devotion, discipline, and self-donation. That is good. But he wants and deserves better. He wants us to be united with him, to be changed by going with him into the desert again to battle the great tempter (Matthew 4:1-11).

If we do that, if we let ourselves get taken up with Christ without reservation, then there will be a time beyond time, when our Heavenly Father will look at us, and may see and love something in us that he sees and loves in his only-begotten son. That’s why we need to live Lent as loved sinners and not as pseudo-Pharisees.

When I write next, I will continue my series of Lenten reflections. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer. 

LentSpiritual Life
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