In the midst of all this reading, I was experiencing Lent for the first time since my Episcopalian childhood. My family moved on to a charismatic evangelical denomination when I was around thirteen or fourteen years old, and such liturgical notions were not observed by anyone, but I didn't know just how much they weren't observed until one particular Sunday.
By the time the pastor of the church preached this sermon, I was already well on my way. I'd even been to his office to talk to him several times about why I felt this uncanny pull toward something that was "so obviously not right" (oh, I was kidding myself....I knew it was right, all right; I was just wrestling with how to break it to others, namely my husband and my parents). The pastor, not unnaturally, was agreeing with me: "This can't be the Holy Spirit calling you, because why would He want you to go backwards in your faith?"
Which brings to mind something else I found out during that journey across the Tiber: There is no one with his mind more firmly shut -- welded and then sealed in a lead vault -- that the committed Protestant evangelical who won't read anything about the Catholic Church for fear of finding out that he's been wrong.
But I digress.
Anyway, during that particular sermon, I was electrified when the pastor said, in a scoffing, dismissive tone, "What about all those people out there who are going through Lent right now? Could there be anything more useless in proving to God that you are good enough by 'giving something up'? How could that possibly matter to God? He doesn't need your sacrifices. It doesn't help God if you decide not to eat candy for six weeks."
Yeah, I know. I was gobsmacked by this idiocy, too, particularly since so much was made in this church about how this pastor was a Bible scholar of insanely high merit. Spent hours in prayer every morning. Graduated from Bible college summa cum laude. Devoted huge amount of time to study of the Holy Word, blah blah blah.
How could you be so smart and miss something so fundamental to the Christian faith? I mean, even if you aren't a Catholic or one of the Protestant denominations that observe Lent, how could you miss this? I suppose if you were blindly determined to view the issue of whether or not God "needs" our sacrifices from the most superficial level, you could cobble together some sort of dubious argument to defend your toenails-deep position, but coming from a Bible scholar, this was an astounding pronouncement.
First of all, since God, as the Scripture tells us, famously owns the "cattle on a thousand hills," He strictly doesn't "need" much of anything from us of a material nature. And God is still going to be God whether or not I stop eating cookies for the forty days (excluding Sundays, which are always days of celebration) before Easter. One Do-Si-Do more or less is not going to shift Him off His throne.
But spiritually, that is another matter altogether. When Jesus made His ultimate sacrifice to save us from death, He did it voluntarily. He deliberately took on something that was going to extract a certain cost from Him, and that is exactly the example the faithful are meant to follow. We can offer sacrifices to God at any time of the year, of course, but the amazing thing about Lent is that we can all do it together, through Him, with Him and in Him.
There are probably some who would take great offense at my likening Jesus's death on the cross to giving up sweets, but I will tell you that the very act of voluntarily giving up any pleasure -- it doesn't have to be goodies; it could be just about any simple pleasure that a particular person deeply enjoys, and it doesn't have to be food-related -- is a small martyrdom, a giving of self in an effort of self-discipline that we don't often lend ourselves to.
And isn't self-discipline and self-denial one of the very hallmarks of our faith? Jesus says in Mark 8:34-37:
He summoned the crowd with his disciples and said to them, "Whoever wishes
to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For
whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my
sake and that of the gospel will save it. What profit is there for one to gain
the whole world and forfeit his life? What could one give in exchange for his
This sums up the entire purpose of Lenten sacrifices: We take up our crosses. We learn to say YES to His will and NO to ours. We give our lives to Him in a series of gestures over the years that seem so small if you look at them with a cynical eye that tells you that God doesn't give a hoot if you decide not to watch basketball during March Madness.
Can we be saved without making these sacrifices? Well, sure. But without the sacrifices deliberately chosen to mortify our selfish flesh, our relationship with our Savior is going to be so much less than it could be. If all you ever recognize in Jesus is Easter Sunday, you're missing something elemental to who He is to you and for you. It's only in accepting the spiritual and physical realities of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday that you can hope to have any depth at all. I can't tell you how much more right it feels to celebrate Easter after forty days of sacrifice and the challenges of those three somber days.
The sacrifices of Lent, combined with the other two strictures of prayer and almsgiving, should help move us to a closer relationship with our Lord. We're meant to carry on that spirit of self-discipline and self-denial into the rest of the year with us, with the result being that every Lent we experience should be a more profound time of spiritual growth, a yearly evaluation of where we stand with Him. Because one of the great spiritual truths that I did learn at that charismatic evangelical church is this: If you're not moving forward on the upward, rocky path of Christian life, you're moving backward. There's no such thing as standing still.
So. What can Lent do for you? Give up something you really enjoy -- REALLY ENJOY, not just something you feel so-so about -- and learn about simple self-denial. I guarantee that if you do that, you'll find yourself being tested by your own selfish desires almost immediately: in our home, candy, Ho-Ho's, Zingers and maybe even those nasty fruit roll-up things have never looked so scrumptious. My husband gave up all sweets for the first time this year and miserably told me yesterday evening, "The world is FULL OF COOKIES and we've only been doing this for TWO DAYS."
Combine that self-denial with some extra prayer: If you already set aside a certain amount of time for daily devotions, set aside an extra fifteen minutes. If you already read one chapter of the Bible every day, read two chapters. If you gave up a certain television show, spend the time that that show airs in reading your Bible or praying or both. If you've never prayed a daily rosary, start now. Your efforts at self-denial will somehow meld together with your efforts to draw nearer to Him in prayer and you will be surprised at how your heart will be drawn into His.
Add to that some almsgiving: Put an extra amount of money in the offering plate. Combine almsgiving with sacrifice by giving to your church the money that you ordinarily spend on fancy coffees during the week. When you're doing the weekly grocery shopping, pick up a few extra items -- a box of this, a can of that, a jar of something else -- and store them in a box until Lent ends, and then donate them to a soup kitchen or a food pantry. You'll be surprised at how much food that turns out to be.
Do all these things realizing that God always meets us MORE than halfway. In the fourth chapter of James' letter, he tells us one of the greatest truths a person can ever experience: "Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you."
He will. No matter how silly the whole process may seem to others, it means a lot to Him.