Monday, March 9, 2020

On Those Who Sneer At the Lenten Practices of Others

Is this the manner of fasting I would choose, 
a day to afflict oneself? 
To bow one’s head like a reed, 
and lie upon sackcloth and ashes? 
Is this what you call a fast, 
a day acceptable to the Lord? 

Is this not, rather, the fast that I choose: 
releasing those bound unjustly, 
untying the thongs of the yoke; 
Setting free the oppressed, 
breaking off every yoke? 

Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry, 
bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house; 
Clothing the naked when you see them, 
and not turning your back on your own flesh? 

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, 
and your wound shall quickly be healed; 
Your vindication shall go before you, 
and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. (Isaiah 58:5–8)
Among anti-Catholic and anti-Francis Catholic critics, I see a similar kind of sneering going on, even though the mindsets of these groups are diametrically opposed. The similarities come through how they deride the penitential practices of Catholics. Either they mock the individual sacrifice as “shallow” or they mock something serious on the grounds that people shouldn’t treat sins as something you “give up for Lent.” And if a person should resolve to do something for Lent, the response is a mocking “well, why didn’t you do that earlier?”

It is true that some people can be shallow about a Lenten sacrifice, either making it so light or with so many exceptions as to be virtually meaningless. People can focus on giving up something and become unbearable to live with. People can wrongly approach “giving up sins for Lent” by thinking that they will take them up again after Easter. Some people take up practices for the wrong reason (“I’ll cut back on food to lose weight.”) Such people do need to be gently corrected.

But too often, the people who sneer seem to miss the point. When we give something up, or perform a practice, we do so to turn away from our past way of living and back to God. So, if giving up a certain pleasure helps us to say no to ourself when it leads us away from God, it is a good thing. If doing a good thing helps us to form practices that serve God the rest of the year, that is a good thing. And if we remember that “Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2 NABRE), then Lent is a good time to repent of the sins we should have previously turned away from but have not managed to escape, with the intention of staying away (with God’s grace) to stay away after Lent ends.

We should keep in mind that not everyone is able to do the same things. A diabetic is not able to fast in the same way as one who is healthy. A person who loves meat will be harder hit by the rules of abstinence than the person who is vegan. The mother of young children might find it harder to say a decade of the Rosary than the unmarried do to say the whole thing. And a person who tries to use Lent as a time to try again to reject the sin he commits over and over out of love for God is trying to do more than the person who spends his time denouncing others for sins he has never been tempted by.

So, when we see a person approaching Lent differently than we think it should be done, let us not sneer or judge. The person might be shallow, or mistaken. But the person might be struggling with a trial greater than we can imagine.

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