Wednesday, February 21, 2007

A Time of Repentance and Reflection

Growing up my family never went to church. With a protestant mother and a catholic father, no good compromise could be found. Yet, each year without fail my mother led us in a strict Lenten discipline of sacrifice. (Looking back I have to note how interesting it was that my protestant mother, not my catholic father, was the most faithful Lenten disciple in our home!). Each Ash Wednesday my mother would ask us what we were going to give up for Lent. While she inevitably gave up chocolate or candy, I usually gave up something I had every day...some years it was tea, or soda (pop, as we called it in Ohio), or as I got older caffeine in all forms.

Given my mother's solemn instructions, I took this ritual very seriously. Once while eating at my friends home for dinner I was given soda to drink. Without thinking I put the glass to my lips and drank in a big gulp of syrupy sweetness. It was only as the cola was half-way down did I remember I had given it up for Lent. I nearly choked myself trying to spit it back in the cup. You see, I understood Lent to be about my own personal devotion. It required strict adherence and even one drop of pop would be enough to send me straight to hell or at list on God's list of bad children (funny how God and Santa seemed so similar back then). Breaking Lenten discipline meant failing at loving God. It was up to me and me alone to make sure I passed the test and loved God as faithfully as I could through my own individual sacrifices.

While I appreciate the practice of discipline instilled in me by my mother and recognize its significance in my own spiritual formation, I have over the years come to question this understanding of Lent as a time of individual sacrifice and ascetic deprivation to prove one's love to God. Today as I stood in front of the federal building in downtown Boston along with 60 odd clergy and lay people protesting the war in Iraq and seeking repentance for our silence and complicity, it became clear that Lent was not just about me and my ability to sacrifice my favorite foods. Lent is more than individual piety; it is communal commitment to the vision of peace and justice God has given us.

Lent is a common journey we take together as the people of God, seeking to follow the path Jesus laid for us and looking to the places where we may gone astray. In the early Church, Lent was the time when new members prepared for initiation and when penitent members, those who had separated themselves from the community of faith, were reconciled and brought once more into the fold. Lent was a time of concentrated discipleship when the community of faith took time to assess their own pace and place on their journey toward God's vision.

Far from an individual flogging for failures or sacrifice for sacrifice's sake, Lent offers us the opportunity as a community to reflect on our actions in the world and to help each other embody the Gospel message in our daily lives. God does not require sacrifice as proof of our love; rather God desires that we join together in seeking justice, loving kindness and walking humbly the path of discipleship. We are called to live our love of God.

The good news is that we don't have to do this alone, in fact we should not do this alone. We are called to stand together as a community, to "watch over one another in love" (as Wesley would say) and to help one another become better, more faithful, disciples. This is our Lenten journey.

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