“I hate Lent!” once exclaimed the great Samuel Johnson in 18th century England. To tell you the truth, I can’t help wishing that contemporary Catholics would echo his brief but heartfelt cry. A devout Anglican with barely concealed Roman Catholic sympathies, Johnson, I suspect, might well be part of the new Anglican Ordinariate by now if he’d been born a few centuries later. As it was, he publicly defended the Catholic Church a surprising number of times on a surprising number of issues. And, from the above quotation, I think it’s safe to assume he had a good, old-fashioned Catholic appreciation of Lent. He would have fit right in during Lent back in the days in which I grew up.
However, I wonder how many of today’s Catholics can even understand Johnson’s words. His words should make us realize that it’s high time to help our parishioners develop a good old-fashioned aversion to Lent once again.
How do we do that? I think we can all agree that the Season of Lent has become anemic — flabby — and is in desperate need of some reinvigoration It’s not particularly original to note that the sense of sin among people in our culture has gradually but consistently diminished over the last few decades to a point where the word “sin” has come to have almost no meaning beyond the actions of mass murderers. Of course, it stands to reason that if we can’t see ourselves as sinners in need of repentance and God’s grace, we will not see any great need for something like Lent.
So how do we reintroduce an idea of the reality of our own sinfulness this Lent? Well, it wouldn’t hurt to preach on it regularly and consistently and with some real zeal. It also wouldn’t hurt to point out not only the many places where we can easily fall into sin, but also some of the many great corporate sins of human history. Americans like to feel that they are good people, and most are. But we often fail to remember the many great sins in our nation’s past that were committed by people who were fairly good in many ways but tragically and willfully blind in certain respects to the will of God. Slavery is only one of many examples.
Another thing we can do is to reintroduce some of those wonderful practices that make people think about their own failings, their need to turn their lives around and come closer to God. Not coincidently these things were usually the very things that used to make people hate Lent.
If you’re as old as I am (and few people are) you will remember the Black Fast. What a wonderful term that is! You can’t say it without thinking of sackcloth and ashes. By the time you’ve said it twice I guarantee that you’ll be in the mood for Lent — and an old-fashioned Lent, at that. The Black Fast really wasn’t so black when you get right down to it; it just meant that no meat, dairy products, or eggs — no food whatsoever from an animal — were permitted on the Wednesdays, Fridays or Saturdays during Lent. But it reminded us that we were doing without something we thought was important and we were doing without it as a form of penance for our sins. The Black Fast made us feel wonderfully afflicted, and it actually helped us connect with the reality of our own sinfulness. It was a physical practice that could have a spiritual benefit, and it helped make Lent mean something to us.
The idea of fasting is not unique to us but is common throughout the religious world. The Jewish people engage in a kind of concentrated Lent on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. During that day they abstain from all nourishment including even a sip of water. During Islam’s month-long Ramadan, the Muslim faithful abstain from food and drink every day from sunup to sundown. Now those are black fasts. Other religions, including Hinduism, have periods for the recognition of sins, and each of these religions associates some kind of fast from food with these periods.
I’m perfectly aware that bringing back a few of the traditional Lenten practices isn’t going to change the world, but it may help to change a few souls. It may help to remind people that, as we prepare to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ, we must acknowledge our faults and acknowledge that we are flesh and blood creatures who love our comforts more than we love Christ.
So this year I hope that priests will do their level best to help their parishioners say with Samuel Johnson, “I hate Lent!” TP