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This Lent I’m giving up Lent

Faithpoint | Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A few years ago, I asked a friend, who had just finished his dissertation, “What are you giving up for Lent this year?” Still dazed from the research and writing hell he had just endured, he looked, slightly befuddled, slightly angry, at me and said, “I just finished Lent. This year for Lent I’m giving up Lent!” Seemed fair enough….

For Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s Catholics, Lent does arrive at a time that pretty much is Lent already – February, with Canadian winds air conditioning themselves over the Great Lakes before barreling into our little Shire. One student coming out of her dorm some frigid morning last week turned and said to her friend (in a great Southern drawl that absorbed and expelled her frustration with a wonderful, comic class) – “Sometimes I walk out here in the morning and want to say a prayer to start the day, but I feel that wind and the only thing going through my mind is, “Girl, what were you thinking coming here?!!” Throw in midterms, no football, no Wrigley, now an economic recession – and the Church wants to throw Lent into the mix?!! Just what we needed! Or is it?

I suppose if one understood Lent primarily as a season of suffering, we might reasonably find that there is already plenty happening in our lives and world to make the season rather redundant. Rubbing in the bad news, so to speak – a bad pun, I realize, after Ash Wednesday.

But what if the purpose of Lent is not understood to be the rubbing in of bad news, as much as it is a preparation for the reception of good news? What if the end result of Lent is not a heightened awareness of how grey and cold the Midwest winters, or our souls, are, but the stirring up of – right in the midst of winter – the hope for the bare-foot, Frisbee tossing warmth of the Spring?

As humans, we find it easier to recognize and ritualize our present limitations, more than our future glory. And this for an obvious reason – we live squarely in the former, while the latter exists beyond “what eye has seen or ear has heard.” So it is perhaps not surprisingly that we celebrate the 40 days of Lent exceedingly more effectively than the 50 ensuing days of Easter. Ask most Catholics three weeks after Easter, “What day of Easter is it?” and, especially on the East Coast, they will call you an insulting name. But ask any Catholic how many days of Lent left, and they will blurt out “18!” with images of cheeseburgers and chocolate dancing in their heads. It’s just easier, this side of heaven, to sacramentalize our present incompleteness than our future wholeness.

In my favorite Mardi Gras Gospel – the one that prepares me for Lent better than any other – Jesus is asked, “Why do John the Baptist’s and the Pharisees’ disciples fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, then they will fast.”

I love these words, for two reasons. First, they justify the Lenten fast from Jesus’ own lips, which always helps when I am ready to succumb to that Bruno’s sausage and pepperoni combo (have you had Bruno’s homemade sausage yet – giving up Bruno’s homemade sausage for Lent is the stuff of saints). Second, what I like most about this Gospel is that its focus – from beginning to end, from non-fasting to fasting – is the presence of Christ.

Fasting, this Gospel suggests, is not primarily ritualizing the curse of being human, or the extinguishing of our hope. Or, more properly, fasting ritualizes the temporary absence of Christ – precisely to ones who have already deeply experienced His presence. And who have been promised eternal life with and through Him in the Resurrection, as inconceivable and difficult-to-ritualize that may be.

Lent, like everything we do as Catholics, must ultimately be about increasing our awareness of and responsive to the living presence of Christ. In our minds and hearts. In the lives of others, particularly the suffering. In our Church and worship. In our world. In every aspect of our lives. Perhaps we might choose a fasting that will heighten our longing in all these places for the joy and wholeness that is promised us through the presence of Christ. Though I do not recommend giving up Bruno’s sausage to the feint of heart….

This week’s column is written by Fr. Lou DelFra, CSC, Director of Campus Ministry Bible Studies and ACE Chaplain. He can be reached at [email protected].

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.