15 February, 2011

Preparing for the upcoming season of Lent

Lent, Ramadan, Tisha B'Av...virtually every religion has its own version of a time set  each year during which adherents deny themselves some of life’s ordinary pleasures as penance for their failings of the year past. For Christians and Muslims, it is common during Lent and Ramadan to refrain from eating foods and forego indulging in other favorite passions.  It's their participation in a collective mea culpa, mea maxima culpa; a shared act of atonement for sin. The weeks leading to the Jewish days of Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur include certain rites of purification when orthodox Jews ritually cleanse themselves. It is to make clear the change of state from sin to grace using the cleansing power of water as exteriorly revealing an inner change.

During Lent, individual acts of abstinence and penance undertaken by Christians of various denominations seem to take on greater significance when joined by sharing the experience communally. Attendance at daily mass rises as practicing Catholics devote extra time from their daily schedule to come together in time dedicated to communal prayer. Countless numbers of recitations of the rosary, novenas and other shared acts of devotion will also be offered in atonement for the failings of others, living and dead.

People unfamiliar with the need for ritual or collective acts of atonement can sometimes find the reasoning behind such deliberate privations unfathomable. Even some within the Christian family cannot countenance or understand what benefit could come from these traditional Lenten practices. The tradition of almsgiving is matched by their instinct to charity that moves them. It’s easy to grasp. So too can they understand the need for times of fast and purging to pay for price for consuming too many sweets and treats nonstop since Christmas (speaking personally). For many a quick glance in a mirror can show the need for a period of self discipline and denial to bring ourselves back into shape.

However, atonement prayer is outside their personal zeitgeist. They feel no personal need to be cleansed, spiritually or otherwise and can see little value in denying ourselves that which we enjoy as a consequence for past failures.  For many Christians, such ritual privations and oblations make perfect sense. They know it is essential in any relationship to spend regular effort and time to demonstrate our repentance for acts of the past which injured others. As believers, they see themselves as being in relationship with a loving and personal God. Lent offers  an opportunity to devote time and attention each day to reflect upon how we have relationally failed God and others over the past year and learn to do better in the future. The purpose of their penance is not as a bribe fearfully offered to a vengeful God, but an acknowledgment of the failings of those who are in relationship with Him.

Put in religious terms, the sufferings are undertaken to express concretely  contrition, which allows us to appreciate future pleasures that we share in our daily life. Don't they say that absence makes the heart grow fonder? As money spent on roses bought for another rather than for ourselves can say both ‘I love you’ and ‘I’m sorry’, time spent in prayer or money offered as alms rather than consumed for self satisfaction can benefit us all as they strengthen relationships that are considered essential for happiness in life. It would benefit us all to take such regular times dedicated regularly to making ourselves better for ourselves and for the welfare of others.

As fewer and fewer people observe the practices of Lent, another wisdom  is in danger of being forgotten outside of a shrinking community: that for the good of all, it’s vital to take time for annual frank self assessment, contrition and correction.

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