This is a page that focuses on religious and theological issues, as well as providing comprehensive teaching from a classic Catholic perspective. As you read the articles, it is my hope they will educate and bless you.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Great Lent

This is the season of Lent (or the Great Fast, as our Eastern Christian brethren call it).  Lent is an important time of the year for us as Catholic Christians as it is a time of prioritizing our relationship with Christ by laying aside those things which distract us from living our Christian lives as individuals.  I wanted to do an important teaching on Lent this year because it has a lot of misconceptions from Protestant Evangelical/Fundamentalist brethren who, through the nasty disorder called Romophobia, have weaved an entire mythology around Lent based largely on fallacious information supplied by spurious sources such as Alexander Hislop.  However, not only is Lent fully Christian, but I want to show from Scripture that many practices of Lent have support there as well, provided you are not viewing them through Romophobic-tainted Fundamentalist lenses.  So, I will begin by first discussing some specific practices - Ash Wednesday, fasting and abstinence, etc. - and then I want to show how Lent is a time for us to make Jesus Christ central in our lives, and how it establishes a pattern for the whole year and not just a season. 

I want to begin with a discussion about Ash Wednesday, which marks the start of Western Lent (in the East, it begins on that preceding Monday).  According to The Catholic Encyclopedia (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1987) on page 55, Ash Wednesday was instituted by Pope Gregory the Great in the 7th century, but it has roots in a much older practice that goes back to Old Testament times.  Throughout Scripture, ashes have always symbolized mourning, penance, and sorrow, and this is evident in such Scripture passages as Jonah 3:6, Job 2:8 and 30:19 in the Old Testament as well as Matthew 11:21 and Luke 10:13 in the New.  The Middle Eastern custom was generally to dress oneself in sackcloth, and sit in an ash bed when a penitential season of fasting was called.  It is a call to humility reminding us that from the dust of the earth we come, and that we are no greater than God, who created us from that dust.  The general practice on Ash Wednesday in the West is to burn the ashes from the palms of the Palm Sunday from the previous year (it forms a continuity with the previous Paschal season), after which the priest mixes them with holy water.  As the priest prays over the faithful who humbly kneel at the altar, he paraphrases a passage of Scripture to them from Genesis 3:19, which in the traditional Anglo-Catholic service is read "Remember O man, that dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." (see The People's Anglican Missal, p. A60) The reason I wanted to mention this is that contrary to what some Protestant Fundamentalists allege, the distribution of ashes has a strong Scriptural base, and a deep meaning to those who receive this dispensation.  I have heard some of the most ridiculous allegations about Ash Wednesday from these people, including this one from a person who is actually a friend - "Wearing ashes on your forehead (“for they disfigure their faces that they may appear unto men to fast”) is for show.  And public proclamations of fasting or denying yourself a pleasure that is not sinful such as chocolate is unbiblical.  It is for show.  It is a man-made tradition. Besides, Christ commands us to fast in secret."  To be honest, this is a ridiculous and stupid charge (no offense to my friend intended) and is so ridiculous that it bears no real need to respond to it.  This unfortunately stems back to the whole idea of what justification is about - some Fundamentalists think -  as Dr. Regis Martin, my theology professor, succinctly pointed out - that sin is like a cowpie and Jesus just covers it with snow and that is that.  However, the more correct and Scriptural way of seeing justification is that Jesus, by His incarnation, enters into our sinful beings and transforms us from within, thus the stench of the manure of sin is transformed into the beautiful garden of salvation.  In order for that to happen though, it is important to understand that salvation is not just a one-time event, but it is a lifelong thing.  Baptism cleanses us from original sin, but we are still subject to propensities to sin, and therefore we have to be careful to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit to conquer those propensities (called "the passions" by the Church Fathers) and overcome them by growing in our walk with Christ (Theosis).   The Lenten season is one way to remind us that we need to do this, although it shouldn't stop with Lent, but actually should be a practice for the entire year.  Which leads us to another aspect of this whole discussion - fasting and abstinence.

Fasting and abstinence can be practiced together, or they can be practiced separately, but they are two different things.  Fasting  is quantitative in that it has to do with how much we do or don't consume.  Fasting takes several forms - it can be skipping a meal and eating smaller portions, or it can go all the way by not consuming anything for a period of time, as Jesus did in the 40-day sojourn He undertook in the Wilderness, which is also what Lent reminds us of in the Church year, as it deals with life events of our Lord.  There is not a prescribed regimen for fasting, as the Church has always taught that one should do so as he or she is able - in other words, if you have medical issues that would make fasting difficult, you can do something else instead or fast in a more manageable way that will not endanger your health.  Abstinence on the other hand has to do with quality, and what kind of food, etc., we consume.  As far as I know, there are no health issues with abstinence, as anything can be abstained from that maybe is considered an indulgent pleasure.  Keep in mind too that abstinence is not limited to food - you can also abstain from different types of television (or all TV!), hobbies, movies, favorite types of music, etc.  Also, it is important to note that couples are also encouraged to abstain from sexual relations at this time (I Corinthians 7:50).  But, Lent is not just about what you give up, but also about what you can do to enrich your spiritual life, which is where we go next.

With the distractions of life's pleasures tempered through the disciplines of fasting and abstinence, we are encouraged by the Church to engage in other spiritual activities and exercises to help us grow in our faith.  For instance, you may have had that desire to read through a Biblical book, so this is a good time to do that.  Also, that money you save by abstinence can be invested in the work of the Church or toward things that bless and help others - give more to the missions program of your church, or donate to a specific ministry, for example.  It is also a prime occasion to channel the time you now have possibly from abstinence from entertainments to do something more constructive - visit a nursing home, assist your pastor with hospital visitations, or even volunteer time at the local animal shelter (abandoned pets are God's creatures too, after all).   The reason for all this is a simple one - it is putting Christ back at the center of one's life and focus, and by ministering to others in practical ways you share Christ with them, rather than feeding the flesh and gratifying self.   Which now leads me to some concluding observations.

The late Cardinal Henri de Lubac, in his classic 1956 text The Splendor of the Church, made an important point about what mystery is - I define mystery as a truth that you know is true but are unable to explain, but de Lubac takes it one step further.  He says that a mystery is that which is "fitfully believed in obscurity."  However, aside from the concept of "mystery," de Lubac notes that one particular mystery - the Church herself - is the one mystery that every other mystery (Trinity, the deity of Christ, the role of grace, etc.) revolves around (Henri de Lubac, The Splendor of the Church {New York: Sheed and Ward, 1956} p. 24).  However, the Church is not the total end, as she reflects something else - the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.   Dr. Regis Martin, my Theology professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville, notes that one of the most perfect metaphors used by many to describe the Church over the centuries is the moon - in the moon, we see death and rebirth (those who make up the Church die to original sin through the holy mystery of Baptism, and we are "born again" in Christ), and also the fact that the moon imparts the light of the sun to the earth - the moon does not illuminate itself, in other words.  Likewise, the Church imparts the light of the Gospel from the SON, Jesus, and she is the visible presence of Christ to the world.   The Church does not exist for herself, but rather for the Savior who is her Spouse.  In short, our devotion during Lent and at other times of the Christian year is not about us - the Lenten practices of fasting and abstinence are not a sanctified Atkins program, and as good as the health benefits are, they are not the sole purpose.  That being said, it's time to preach a little.

I have been seeing some very disturbing trends among Evangelical Protestants in recent years that disturb me.  In the logic of supposedly "becoming all things to all people," many of these people have discarded some very strong convictions about keeping Christ at the center of our lives in order to serve man - the culture is the new "god" of Evangelicalism, all in the name of "change."  Again, this is a loss of focus from Christ to other things - numbers, respectability, etc.  Just today as I write this as a matter of fact, a leading Evangelical relief ministry, World Vision, has decided that homosexuals who are "married" are all of a sudden Christians and can work with their "ministry."  This is similar to so many others in recent years who have apostatized - Rob "No Hell" Bell, the Exodus International ministry, and not a few of my professors at my former university.  I find it interesting, for instance, that many of my former professors put causes and pet projects above their professed call to equip future ministers in their denominations, but the double-standard they display betrays their real motive.   I find it curious that these professors at supposedly Christian universities will soapbox about migrant workers, the "plight of the poor," etc., while at the same time they drive their expensive cars, live in their $300K homes, and get ridiculously large salaries from the tuition (which as worthless as some of it is, it is a ripoff to the poor students and their benefactors who supplied the funds to pay for it!).   Yet, surprisingly, when one hears these professors soapbox about their pet causes, it is always to lay burdens on others that they themselves fall short bearing.   This goes back to something that Primitive Catholic (now Anabaptist) writer David Bercot said in his 1989 book Will The Real Heretics Please Stand Up? (Tyler, TX: Scroll Publishing, 1989) when he notes that Christianity will not improve until the Church returns to simple holiness, genuine love, and the crossbearing attitudes of early Christians (p. 158).  Otherwise, this individualistic "Jesus and me and no room for thee" mentality of the majority of American Evangelicals (especially the professors in their theological schools teaching them this crap!) will lead to a secularization of their beings that will say, based on the fallacy of sola Scriptura, that because the individual interprets a situation thus, then it must be "the Lord."  That is one reason so many so-called theological academics are quick to canonize Nietzsche and Marx while demonizing the real people in their own churches who believe the truth.  And, that is also why people like the administration of World Vision now think it's "OK to be gay as long as you're married."  Some writers have pointed out this pragmatism with Evangelicals before - in centuries past, divorce was considered a grave sin unless either adultery or life-endangering violence was the cause, but nowadays I have personally heard "Christians" saying they are divorcing their spouses because they "just don't feel compatible."  Bullcockle!!!  They need to be reminded of the Scripture perhaps that says "What God has brought together let no man tear asunder" (Matthew 19:6).  Divorce opened the floodgates to a lot of crazy stuff among professing Christians in recent years, and it is of no surprise to me that some of these same people are baptizing homosexuality as "acceptable" now.  Archbishop Haverland notes that this mindset among Christians will produce the same secularization that has plagued "mainline" churches like the Episcopalians, and it all comes back to too much individualistic, misguided, pseudo-pietist Scripture hermeneutics that de-emphasize the place of the Church in our understanding of our faith.  Secularism is a real danger, and Fr. Alexander Schmemann defined it as "the absence of man as a worshipping being" in his book For The Life of the World on page 109.  Hence, the need for a true Lenten season of repentance is a message to the whole Church to return devotion to Him whom it properly belongs, Jesus Christ.

In fastings, abstinence, and various spiritual exercises you may undertake this Lenten season, please remember to "do them unto the Lord."  Lent is about putting Christ back in the center of our lives and giving our churches that luminous reflection of His love to witness to this world.  And, in doing so, we must uphold that which the Church has taught - there is no compromise, "change," or innovation in that regard warranted, as what we have received IS the truth in its fullness; it doesn't need further development, but must be humbly and joyfully received and accepted.  Until we do that, we cannot know the fullness of our life in Christ.  So, this Lent, I challenge you - make Christ your center, and work to magnify Him in your daily lives.  He is not asking you to be perfect, but to strive toward what He called you to be.   God bless.