[Our job as Christians is] to have constantly before our eyes in the room we most frequent some work of the best attainable art. This will teach us to refuse evil and choose the good. – George MacDonald
Now is the time to loosen, cast away
The useless weight of everything but love. – Malcolm Guite
I both love and dread Lent.
I dread it because it asks a great deal of me. It invites me to give up things that I enjoy, things whose absence I might feel acutely, in some cases painfully. It does so not, as the casual Christian might suppose, as a way to inconvenience me or, more brightly, to enable me to live a more healthy, fruitful, faithful life (which, here and there, it does, and thank God for that).
Lent is decidedly uninterested in such pragmatic outcomes. It is interested instead in helping us to die a good death, with Jesus and with others who have bound themselves to the One whose death defines all deaths and defies death itself, and whose resurrected life determines the shape of the life that is truly life.
Each year, around the latter part of winter, Lent arrives. It nearly always surprises me. Here it is, once again, summoning me to change how I typically live. Predictably, I dread this summons every time. If there were an option to tack on a few extra days to the “ordinary time” that follows Christmastide, to forestall the arrival of Ash Wednesday, I would take it in a heartbeat.
For ten months out of the year, excepting the “little Lent” of Advent, I go about my life ordered by a range of habits, governing how I eat, drink, sleep, talk on the phone, check email, exercise, write books, make decisions, treat other people, mow the lawn, pay bills, pray, worry, and worship.
For the 40 days of Lent, I am invited—and, yes, it is always an invitation, never a coercion—to order aspects of my life differently, disrupting hereby my usual rhythms. This is, of course, what Lent intends to do: throw us off.
Lent is an invitation to get us outside of ourselves, so that we might get over ourselves and redirect our lives more wholly to God and to our neighbors. Lent derails our governing inertias to jolt us into seeing things that have gone unnoticed or into feeling things that have begun to calcify into self-absorbed preoccupation.
The mid-20th century Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar once observed that the work of Jesus was to remake the self by unselfing it. Christ’s work opens up a “vacant space” in us for the Spirit of God to renew us. This space, von Balthasar writes, “is occupied by Christ and his Spirit, who confirms to us that we, like the Son, are children of the Father.”
If there is no “space” in us, if we are too full of our to-do lists and projects and notifications and likes and deadlines and anxieties and obligations and wants and shoulds, then there is no room for the Spirit of God to confirm our status as beloved sons and daughters of our Father in heaven.
Left to our own devices, we will never manage to find enough time to make space for God; we will squeeze him in and hope for the best. We will make due with an honest effort here, a flurry of activity there, to deny our false self and, with Saint Paul, to crucify the flesh with its errant and erring passions, so that God might make something useful of us in the world.
Thank God we are not left to our own devices.
In fact, with Lent, as with all the feasts and fasts on the church calendar, it is quite the opposite. We are not left to our own impressions and impulses; we are instead entrusted to the wisdom and care of the church universal. We are not asked to make the most of our lives but are rather invited to frame our lives by the life of the Beloved Son, whose humanity acts as the proper orientation for all human life.