A Catholic perspective on the world and all the good things therein, especially books and food. Literature cum chocolate is the order of the day at The Crockery.

Location: A Collegetown, Undisclosed Location, United States

No longer a graduate student, Teresa is now a professional know-it-all.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

What are You Giving Up?

The subtitle of this post should be "Lent isn't just for Catholics anymore," but I stole that title from the Christianity Today blog, and I figured they might want it back. Lent is indeed not just for Catholics anymore, though I suspect that the majority of evangelical Christians still don't celebrate the season. (However, if you click on the link above, you can find links to several newspaper articles about the spread of Lenten discipline.)

There are differences in how Catholics and Protestants experience Lent, however. The first one I want to mention is a sort of addendum to my previous post. I can't generalize about Protestant culture or Evangelical culture at large, but the Evangelicals I know will often give something up for Lent. They're cool like that. But when I respond to the classic question "What are you giving up for Lent?" by explaining that I am not giving something up, but rather taking on an additional devotion, I sometimes get a surprised look from my Lenten-observing friends. Apparently Lent has become so associated with sacrifice that those new to the practice of Lent may not realize that what is really at stake in Lenten penance is discipline- and discipline can mean doing positive things, rather than negatively giving something up.

I think we Catholics are to blame for this, because we have tended to emphasize the abstention associated with Lent, while sometimes downplaying or ignoring other aspects of the season. What if, instead of complaining about meatless Fridays, we had rejoiced in the blessing of weekly Stations of the Cross? What if, instead of grumbling when we have to turn down a brownie because it's a day of fasting, we showed gratitude for the abundant liturgical riches of this season, such as the distribution of ashes? I can only speak for myself, but I know that I've talked a lot more about being hungry on Good Friday than I have about how incredibly moving the Good Friday services have been to me in the past. Of course, the ideal situation is one in which abstention and fasting themselves are transformed from something to complain about to something about which to glory: not in that we do so much in giving things up, but that God does so much in us through our Lenten penance. As you can probably tell, though, I'm not there yet. Give me time.

The paragraph above nicely brings up the second point of difference between Catholic and Protestant views of Lent. Catholics, with our sacramental worldview, believe that Lenten disciplines can actually DO something to us, if we let them. They can be a means of conversion. They can turn us towards God, if we are open to such conversion. It is not, of course, that giving up X or doing Y is a magic formulate for becoming holy, but that these are means God uses for our sanctification. This is no original idea of mine, by the way: this point appeared in the Ash Wednesday homily my husband and I heard yesterday. I hardly noticed it, but when my husband and I talked about the service afterwards, he pointed out that this is very different from the way most Evangelical Protestants who practice Lent would view Lenten disciplines. In his opinion, most Evangelicals simply wouldn't describe Lenten discipline as actually doing something to us, in words give implied agency or action on the part of the disciplines.

So we receive the same ashes, but we may not think of them as meaning the same thing. We fast, but do we understand the fasting in the same way? I don't know, but I'll say this: I think it's great that other Christians are becoming more attuned to the Church's ancient liturgical practices. (You go, Ancient Future Time!) But I'd like it even more if Christians from different traditions could open up dialogue on the meaning of penance, as well as sharing in its practice.


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