The great risk of Lent
Lent is a risky time. It’s risky because it opens me up to failure, yes. Because I am weak under the lure of Facebook and sweets and my bad driving habits. Because I often set out with grand expectations, with a master plan, with a head marked with ashes and filled with hope at the thought of my expected detachment from the world. Of my transformed habits. Of my Catholic brownie points to come. (No actual brownies involved, obviously.)
But the real risk of Lent? Making it about myself.
There’s a twofold danger here, I find. I can either look to Lent as a time to earn my title of goody two shoes, of fasting master, of standout Catholic; or I can become so engrossed in my own sinfulness and unworthiness and self-loathing that I forget who these 40 days are actually about: Jesus. I must admit I often tend towards the former, but when I recall how many a Lent I’ve sacrificed much but gained even more in pride, the pendulum starts to swing to the other extreme. This is not a time to reup my New Year’s Resolutions, to work on my self-control just for the sake of it, to thank God that I am not like the rest of humanity (greedy, dishonest, adulterous—you know, like that pesky tax collector). It is a time to come before Jesus, with great humility, and receive His mercy and love. To come closer to Him so I can be more like Him. To let my heart be softened.
So I’ve been trying to do less thinking to myself about what I’d like to give up (for the ultimate self-satisfaction, or so I can write a bestselling self-help book by the end) and more asking God what He wants of me in this beautifully solemn, transformative season. Here’s what I’ve heard so far.
In the world, but not of it.
We are the salt of the earth, Jesus says. We’re the light of the world. But if we lose our taste, with what can we be seasoned? Our light must shine before others. We don’t stand apart to season or illuminate the world around us for attention or thanks or praise, but to point to our source. And He calls us to something great.
I am in the world, and I do enjoy buying clothes and using social media and eating delicious food. But I’m also tempted to be of the world, and to wrap myself up in those pervasive comforts until they have their stubborn hold over me. I’d like to more generously answer Jesus’ call to dwell in that city on a hill that points its onlookers to heaven, not stuck in the valley of self-serving worldliness.
Be transformed by the renewal of your mind.
“Do not conform yourselves to this age,” St. Paul writes, “but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2). Again, it’s a call to eschew the ways of the world in favor of God’s ways. To open our minds for the sake of receiving His word and guidance, in pursuit of holiness.
It’s amazing to think what I fill my mind with, how much time I spend thoughtlessly scrolling and scrolling as if the next filtered picture or sensational article or panda video will finally satisfy me. I’d like to forego that passive, shallow, individualistic habit and instead renew my mind with scripture, with books, with conversation that will cultivate my moral imagination and resensitize me to good and evil.
He must increase, and I must decrease.
I want these words of John the Baptist to echo in my soul for the rest of my life. It’s a concept so contrary to our fallen nature, but a relief since we’ve been redeemed. The beauty of it is, John the Baptist spoke of his joy being made complete at the sound of Jesus’ voice. It wasn’t a begrudging, white-knuckled death to self that announced Jesus’ coming; it was a free and joyful self-forgetfulness.
This Lent, I’d like for Jesus to increase in my heart and my life. I’d like to delight in my own littleness to come to recognize more and more the strength of God. All it takes is one brief read-through of the Litany of Humility to recognize how seldom I live this out. But happily, God is patient with me. If I just leave the door open to Him, even a crack, He’ll come in and transform me. He'll make me more like Himself, which is just what I want.
For Lent is, after all, all about him.