Last year I lost a bet with a group of students. The penalty? I had to bring them Dunkin’ Donuts. After a few days of delaying tactics on my part, Lent arrived. One student asked when I would make good on my promise. She was stunned when I told her I would wait until after Easter. “Why?” she protested with disbelief and visible scorn. “Did you give up Dunkin Donuts for Lent?”
Her question reveals the prevailing notion of Catholic Lent: give up something we like, and hang on until Easter. Otherwise, we should just go about our daily business, with the treats and delicacies that we have come to see as par for the daily course. But if Lent is to have any real meaning and impact on our souls, it has to be more than a single repeated act of self-denial, as important as that act may be. The Church gives us a full season to accomplish the singular aim of Lent, and of the whole of Christian existence: conversion. Conversion requires self-denial, to be sure, but it also requires that everything we do and every aspect of our being conform to Christ. This is why Lent is a season – forty days, evenings, nights – spent in the desert with the Lord.
Living in the desert day and night is a cultural change for all of us with modern conveniences and busy social calendars. Weakened as we are by original sin, we are inclined to offer God a sacrifice of our choosing – sweets, alcohol, television, or some other non-essential item – but we do not even think to offer luxuries that have become normal to us: dinner or a movie out with our spouse and friends, purchasing new clothing or other items, morning coffee from Starbucks rather than the office kitchen. Rather than go the extra mile, we all tend to negotiate with God on our terms rather than His, for He demands too much of us.
But for conversion, for the true metanoia that is at the heart of Jesus’ ministry to take place, we have to allow God into all aspects of our lives, morning, noon, and night. In Lent, we are called to live differently, to “sacrifice” even what is dear to us, according to the original meaning of the word: “to make holy.” And when we make something holy we give it to God, removing it from human use.
The fasting regulations in force before 1966 were a powerful reminder of this: forty days with two half meals and one full meal, with abstinence from meat on Fridays. Of course, prayer and other devotions were (and still are) encouraged to orient fasting toward its ultimate goal: to die to self and to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14). When lived with the proper spirit, one could not help but think about Lent: the Passion of our Lord, the sorrows of our own wounded pride, and the glory to come with the Resurrection.
Relaxing this fast to two days (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday) and allowing Catholics to choose their own penances has blunted the true force and character of Lent, which, to judge by the way we Catholics live today, is virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the year. We have traded the desert for the perpetual feast, and in doing so we forgot what the real Feast is all about.
The discipline of Lent – in addition to its spiritual benefits – also once served as a bulwark of Catholic identity in Protestant America as well. Now, bowing to the demands of secular religion, Lent has been reduced to a private, personal matter that cannot be seen in public. The weakening of our collective Lenten observances has coincided with the withering of our Catholic identity. And as our spiritual lives go, so go our public lives.
A renewal in Lenten practices can be a powerful catalyst in rebuilding Catholic identity. Pope John Paul II recognized the connection between identity and Catholic practice in Christifideles Laici, which Pope Benedict XVI recently quoted in own call to evangelization: “Without doubt a mending of the Christian fabric of society is urgently needed in all parts of the world. But for this to come about what is needed is to first remake the Christian fabric of the ecclesial community itself present in these countries and nations.” (emphasis in original)
Lent may well be the most difficult aspect of Catholic life to recover. The desert is never a choice destination. But just as the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church, our sacrifice of prayers, fasting, and almsgiving for a full forty days, evenings, and nights can re-grow our Catholic identity, even though this fine wheat will be surrounded by chaff. The donuts, the movies, the restaurants, and the credit cards cannot – and should not – follow us into the desert. But if we can leave them behind, we will not only enjoy the real Feast more deeply, but also learn the proper perspective on the earthly feasts the Lord has given us.