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God’s tips on Lenten penances

Posted February 21, 2021

1st Sunday of Lent, Yr B

After the carnival come the rigours of Lent: for forty days and forty nights not one sip of pink gin, not one spoonful of rose and violet ice cream topped with crystallized ginger and swirled with raspberry coulis shall pass our lips.  As Cpt Mainwaring was wont to put it, and as the Collect of Ash Wednesday reminds us, ‘Don’t you know there’s a war on?’  And in wartime you have to do without necessities. 

I am sure each of us will do our best to make Lent a period of genuine self-denial, also in the physical sense, for physical mortification can reap many blessings.  It can incline the mind to spiritual things.  It can be an outward sign of inward grace, a sacrament of heartfelt repentance. 

We must, of course, be careful not to make of our physical self-deprivations a subtle means of self-indulgence.  The purpose of fasting is not to make us feel good but to open up spaces in our hearts for God.  It is to make us Christ-conscious.  It is to express our willingness to share in the sufferings that Jesus embraced for our sake.  St Paul in one place sums up the life of Jesus in the words: ‘He did not please himself.’  Our Lenten self-denial must be a gesture to ourselves, and to God, that we want to make Jesus’ instincts our own.

Here are three criteria on which to judge whether our Lenten practices are what they should be: free of self and orientated towards God.

First, they must be accompanied by personal moral reform.  In the Book of Isaiah God has some cutting words for his people about fasting.  ‘The only result of your fasting is quarrelling and squabbling and hitting out viciously with your fist. …Is this not rather the fasting that pleases me: To loosen the bonds of wickedness. … To let the oppressed go free.  To break every yoke?’  In other words: fasting does you no good if you are unjust or unkind to people; or if you persist in any form of wrong-doing.

A second criterion by which we can judge whether our penitential practices are truly Christian is to ensure that others benefit from them too.  Well, no, I correct myself:  This is not an absolute criterion, because (contrary to what many people think nowadays) it is perfectly possible for our practices to be truly Christian and transformative even if they yield no tangible benefits for others.  It is sufficient that they are accompanied by interior penitence and a change of heart.  However, when they also yield benefits for others, that must surely be an added assurance that they spring from a noble motive.  It is good to deprive ourselves of luxuries, or even of what we have come to regard as necessities, in order to put something aside for the poor.  The cost of your daily pudding could feed a child for a month in many parts of the world.  Listen to what God tells his people in that same passage from Isaiah: ‘[Fasting that is pleasing to me] ‒ is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

A third criterion of genuinely Christian penitential practices: They must be joyful.  Lent is a preparation for Easter.  It is a joyful period, not, of course, in the carnival sense, but in the sense that, for one who truly believes, the dark shadow of the cross is always dappled in advance with the glad light of Easter.  Our fasting and penitential practices should radiate the joy of our Lord.  Better in God’s eyes is a beaming bon viveur than a grumpy ascetic.  But best of all is the one who stands loyally with our Lord and merrily shares his hardships. 

Fr Tom Deidun

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