At the reception for one of my recent visitations a friendly parishioner asked me, “What are you giving up for Lent?”
For some reason the question caught me off guard. Groping for a sensible answer I mumbled something about giving up sweets and forgoing meat on Friday.
My answer clearly left him a little deflated. He said, “That’s just kind of standard isn’t it?” He was expecting something edified and spiritually mature from his bishop. Instead, he got a quote from Lent for Dummies.
My mistake was to search for something sensible to say. That’s because Lent reminds us that following Jesus is not sensible. As Bishop Michael Curry
likes to say, it’s crazy
And here’s why.
Lent reminds us that following Jesus is not about giving up this, that, or the other thing among the many things of our life. Jesus is pretty clear. There is only one answer that Jesus wants to the question, “What are you giving up for Lent?”
I’m giving up my entire life. All of it. Every ounce and inch, every breath and heartbeat, each tender affection and unflattering resentment, all my talents and excess body fat, each giddy joy and wrenching sorrow, all of my shining moments and every one of my humiliatingly bad hair days.
This Lent, I’m going to really take Jesus at his word. I’m going to lose my life, because that’s the only way to save it.
I’m even going to give him all those past Lents that I set out to do precisely the same thing and ended up holding some part of myself back.
I’m going to do this again this Lent. I acknowledge ahead of time that I am likely to arrive at Easter still clinging to some bit of myself as mine to keep.
Let me be clear. I’m not talking about spending all of Lent struggling to make myself a better person through prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and the rest. In fact, I’m not talking about focusing on myself at all, and that’s the heart of the Lenten journey.
We begin Lent with the imposition of ashes. Those ashes signify repentance and mortality. At one level we receive ashes simply to admit that we haven’t gotten life right yet and to acknowledge that one day our lives will come to an end.
The real work begins when we ask what we’re going to do about that. Some choose the path of moral and spiritual self-improvement. They assume that the goal of this life is to make yourself presentable to God at the final judgment.
But there is another path. The spiritual challenge of this life is to give ourselves to God just as we are at each moment in order to be transformed in ways that we cannot imagine.
That is the pattern of dying and rising. Death and resurrection. In order to be made a new creation, we must let go of the life to which we’ve become accustomed.
To put this a different way, during Lent we focus on emptying ourselves of our self in order to make space for God to fill us with himself. Paradoxically, that is when we become our true selves.
Jesus sets us an the example of a fully God-saturated life. His presence, his words, his touch, and just the hem of his cloak calms storms, heals lepers, banishes demons, and convinces streetwalkers and tax collectors that they are God’s beloved. God’s presence oozes out of Christ’s pores. All the time.
Try as we might, we’re never going to get there from here. No matter how devoted we are in prayer, how steeped we are in Scripture, how true we are to our moral principles, we will come up short.
Following Christ is not about trying harder. It’s about letting go. It’s about letting go of the life we can make for ourselves—even the life we can make for ourselves with our spiritual practices and moral conduct—in order to receive the life that only God can give us.
Consider the following story from the desert fathers and mothers:
Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not be totally changed into fire? (Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert, p. 50. )
Keeping a rule of life is a good thing. Fasting, prayer, meditation. These are all helpful, spiritually nurturing habits of mind, body, and soul. But as Abbot Lot seemed to have discovered, they take us only so far.
As Ronald Rolheiser puts it, spiritual practices and moral discipline are means by which we get our lives together. But getting our lives together is only the first phase of spiritual growth. There is another step beyond getting our life together.
Rolheiser says that we get our life together in order to give our life away. We give our lives away not to be judged but to be transformed. Or, to return to the imagery of the desert fathers, to be changed into fire. To be utterly filled with God’s holy presence.
We do get glimpses of this from time to time. Mostly we realize it only in retrospect.
In the moment we were caught up in being with a friend, listening to a piece of music, or gazing at a starry sky. And then we come back to ourselves.
We realize that we had forgotten ourselves. We cannot believe how the time has flown. How unaware of ourselves we had been. How absorbed in life we were. We had let go of ourselves for just a moment. And that is when we found ourselves.
During Lent we practice letting go precisely because God created us with a holy longing. We long to be changed into fire.
This sermon was preached at St. James Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Louisiana.