Lenten sacrifices, or not

As Christians know, Lent began with Ash Wednesday two days ago.

Which means it’s time for Lent Madness:

To prove John F. Kennedy’s observation that life is unfair (as if he would have known that before Nov. 22, 1963): It is unfair for Wisconsinites to have to observe Lent. Wisconsinites observe Lent for far longer than Ash Wednesday to Easter every year. It’s called winter.

I am going to wade into the snakepit of theology by making a radical observation about Lent. My educated guess is that those who went to church on Ash Wednesday heard, and those who go to church this weekend will hear, a sermon about the two kinds of sacrifices we should make for Lent.

The traditional sacrifice is to not do something you usually do — drink beer, eat sweets or junk food, or, for a few friends of mine, social media. (Which means they won’t read this, of course.) The alternative sacrifice is to do something you usually don’t do — pray more often, attend church more often, or go to or do a Bible study, for instance.

There is nothing wrong with doing any of that during Lent. Christians are taught to make an additional sacrifice during Lent to honor Jesus Christ’s ultimate sacrifice on Good Friday. The way Lenten sacrifices usually work, though, is that whatever Christians sacrifice for Lent comes back, or goes away, once Lent is over. That may be within the letter of the Lenten sacrifice; it is not in the spirit of Christianity.

Consider two examples. I know someone who (not for religious reasons) would decide he was too heavy and would go on a diet. He would simply not eat as much as he usually ate, or not eat between meals. Unfortunately for those around him, because he was hungry, he became grumpy during his diets, which meant while he dieted, everyone else suffered. That is a non-religious example of a violation of 2 Corinthians 9:7, which tells us Christians that “Every man according as he purposes in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loves a cheerful giver.

Before that in the Bible comes Matthew 6:5–6, in which Jesus Christ tells us, “And when you pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Truly I say to you, They have their reward. But you, when you pray, enter into your closet, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father which is in secret; and your Father which sees in secret shall reward you openly.”

Being a nominal Christian is not difficult at all in the U.S. I got a few strange looks from people Wednesday night when I announced a basketball game seven hours after I went to Ash Wednesday Mass and got the physical reminder that we are dust and unto dust we shall return, but I could not care less about that. The traditional Catholic sacrifice of not eating meat on Fridays during Lent isn’t a sacrifice at all given the quality of Wisconsin fish fries, put on by numerous Catholic churches.

(Even though I’m an Episcopalian now, my Roman Catholic upbringing still compels me to avoid meat on Fridays during Lent. Again, this is not a sacrifice since I’m a big fan of seafood. It would have been a bigger sacrifice decades ago when seafood wasn’t as plentiful and Catholics ate tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, or macaroni and cheese, or tuna/cream of mushroom soup/peas/pasta casserole during Lent. I find none of that particularly appealing. Fettucine Alfredo, on the other hand …)

It’s not my place to tell a Christian whether or not he or she is a true Christian. The Bible, however, doesn’t include the concept of Lenten sacrifice, though sacrifices are found throughout the Old Testament, and fasting is found throughout the Bible. (Obviously only the New Testament after the Gospel would even include a Lent-like concept.)

What Christians are supposed to do during Lent is based on tradition, not really on Scripture. Why, moreover, would a sacrifice fit for Lent be something we should only do between Ash Wednesday and Easter? If that sacrifice makes us better Christians, shouldn’t we make that sacrifice — whether doing without something, or doing more of something — all the time?

As a non-theologian non-member of the clergy, this is what bugs me about Christianity today. The approach of the Joel Osteens and the adherents of the theologically dubious “prosperity Gospel” seems to be that your life will become easier if you become a Christian. That certainly was not what the Bible depicts from the Acts of the Apostles to the end. That’s not what’s happening to Christians in the Middle East today. Our responsibilities as Christians are in this life; our rewards are in the next life.

Our responsibilities as Christians are also individual responsibilities. Jesus Christ didn’t tell us to hire someone to feed the poor or house the homeless, and He didn’t tell us to have Congress or the state Legislature to tax us to clothe the naked or care for the ill. Each Christian is supposed to feed the poor, clothe the naked, house the homeless, care for the ill, etc. And, though we will always be sinners, those who note Jesus Christ’s forgiving various sinners in the Gospels often forget to add His following admonition: “Go and sin no more.”

I think an interpretation of the Bible that doesn’t include the most difficult option at all times is a misunderstanding of what we’re supposed to be and do as Christians. There is nothing easy about being a real Christian. We are called to be better than we are, to be more than the most evolved animal on the planet. If you think acknowledging Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior ends your responsibility as a Christian, you’re wrong. If you think doing good works is enough to be a Christian, you’re wrong.

Maybe Lent is a good time to start something of a self-sacrifical nature. The end of Lent doesn’t mean you should stop.


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