|Posted by thethousandmarch on February 16, 2010 at 12:35 PM|
Today is Fat Tuesday, better known as Mardi Gras – the festival of flesh. For the last couple of years my wife and I have celebrated the somewhat tamer Australian version, Pancake Tuesday. What is the reason for all this revelry? Ash Wednesday follows, marking the start of Lent – forty days of fasting, going without as a religious exercise. So, Tuesday is the last opportunity for excess. Up until this year Jessi and I have only observed the excess. This year, for the first time ever, we have decided to actually observe the going without as well.
Lent is a period of prayer, penitence, almsgiving, and self-denial. However, I don’t really believe in fasting. It seems many people believe fasting is a spiritual discipline that lets God know we’re serious. People seem to think God really likes those who abstain from pleasure, and will reward ascetics with enlightenment. But, I don’t believe there is virtue in self-denial. God tells us: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice . . .” (Hos 6:6). Finally, I do not believe in any form of penance – we do not acquire grace, approval, or reward in such a manner. A penance can lead us to believe we have earned, and therefore deserve, God’s love. So, why would I want to celebrate Lent?
I do believe there is value in partaking in the traditions of the Church. They help maintain our awareness of the communion of the saints. They help put us in our place. Fasting may help me gain compassion for the millions of humans who are living in poverty. A couple of weeks ago I forgot my lunch and I barely survived not having my mid-morning snack. But, it did get me thinking about the needs of others. It actually got my focus off myself. And, that to me is the point of sacrifice – to bless others.
I am giving up meat (which is traditionally given up for Lent) because meat production is a very inefficient use of grain. More people can be fed off the grain than off the meat produced by the same amount of grain. My giving up meat won’t save the world, and I will eat meat again. But, maybe I can help one person. Which leads me to my next reason – the money I don’t spend on myself, I can spend to help others.
Finally Lent is wonderful time for reflection. For us in the northern hemisphere Lent marks the end of winter’s sleep and the rebirth of spring. It culminates in the celebration of our savior Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Because of the time of year during which Lent occurs it is a natural time to spend extra time in contemplation. It is a good time of year to spend extra time in preparation. It is the time of year in which the gardener begins the arduous process of preparing their garden. They break up the soil, cut out death and decay, pull up weeds, prune what was left unchecked in the fall, and plant seeds. All this hard work is part of the process that brings forth the future flowers and fruit. (I am indebted to the Armenian Orthodox scholar Vigen Guroian for this metaphor.)