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Lent and getting over myself

Faithpoint | Thursday, March 19, 2009

My mom casually asked me, “How’s your Lent going?” Like, in the same tone she would ask, “How are the Irish doing?” I wonder, does she ask my younger brother how his Lent is going, or is this a question reserved for her son the priest? How’s my Lent going? How do you answer that?

Funny what I learned while I listened to myself answering my mother. The only way I could think to evaluate my Lent was whether I had faithfully refrained from eating chocolate. “Pretty good so far,” I answered. I guess I could have determined if I had eaten meat on any Friday’s, but being an Italian pasta-lover, this isn’t a particularly difficult practice for me, and so hardly a helpful measure of the successfulness of my Lent. With that quick Lenten-scan, I was ready to move on, allow my mother some time to recite her litany of grandchildren stories.

A few days later, however, I found myself bugged by our conversation, or more specifically, by my evaluation of Lent. Is that all there is to Lent? A contest to check my self-restraint? I’m all for an annual self-examination, but at the end of the day, if the only person I have thought of during Lent is myself, have I really entered into Lent?

With this question in mind, I was preparing the readings for Mass last week, and unsuspectingly had my world rocked by the first reading. It was from Isaiah, and he wasn’t happy:

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please

and exploit others….

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, says the Lord?

Is it only for … lying on sackcloth and ashes?

Is that what you call a fast,

a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:

to loose the chains of injustice

and untie the cords of the yoke,

to set the oppressed free

and break every yoke?

Is it not to share your food with the hungry

and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe him,

and not to turn away?”

I re-read the passage in semi-panic, but could find no reference to chocolate. Maybe some biblical commentary or perhaps a new translation would reveal that this passage was, in its proper historical context, about giving up chocolate, but the chances seemed bleak. At some point, I was going to have to wrestle with the hard fact of the matter: Lenten fasting is not meant to end in mere self-reflection, self-evaluation, or self-anything-else. It is meant to end in others, and in the Other. It is meant to end in love of neighbor and love of God. It is meant to end in hunger – for peace and justice. It is meant to end in Christ’s constant teaching to “lose our life that we may find it.”

Isaiah’s poignant words are meant to awaken and arouse us, to challenge and unsettle us this Lent. They call us to refocus our hearts on what truly sets us free and brings us real joy – giving ourselves away in love to God and others, struggling for true and lasting justice, which alone brings true and lasting freedom and peace.

Our individual Lenten self-denials are excellent little ways to deny ourselves, to lose ourselves, to remind us to lose our lives in love of God and service of others, so that we might find Life. This is the promise of Jesus’ teaching, and this is the example of Jesus’ death and resurrection – the moment of losing ourselves is the moment of gaining Life.

How’s my Lent going? I’m not sure anymore. But I know that if I am the only person who shows up in my answer, I haven’t reached the heart of Lent yet.

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

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