Fat Tuesday – Carneval – Mardi Gras, it’s the day before Ash Wednesday. As usual, people are considering the issue of what they will “give up” for Lent. This is the typical and practical way of looking at the question of “fasting.” At the same time, Catholic media are featuring a host of articles on Lenten discipline that is challenging us to look more deeply into the Season of Lent.
The Gospel for Ash Wednesday will bring us the three-fold admonition of Jesus regarding prayer, fasting, and alms giving. Couched in the middle of this admonition is his teaching which gives us the familiar “Lord’s Prayer.” The sacred writers were fond of using a rhetorical device called a “chiasm” or “chiasmus.” This figure of speech gets the reader to focus on the heart of the matter by placing it in between or in the middle of a written or spoken text. Chiasms force us to look “in the middle,” “from both sides of the perspective.”
If this chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is read as a chiasm, perhaps our Lenten focus would be a little different. Unfortunately, the people who constructed the Lectionary for Daily Mass left this part of the Gospel out of tomorrow’s Gospel reading. It is included a few days later.
However, the Lord’s Prayer forces us to look at our relationship to God as well as our relationship to our neighbor. In other words it focuses us on the two great commandments. Perhaps Matthew is telling us that prayer, fasting, and alms giving are about relationships rather than discipline. It just might be possible that Matthew’s intention is to ask us to “take up” rather than “give up.” Rather than giving up chocolate or sweets or cigarettes or using Facebook or playing computer games, perhaps we should be thinking in terms of practices which create or renew or repair relationships in our lives.
I remember one particular Valentine Day when I was hearing confessions in a convent of nuns. To each nun who came to confession that day, I gave the same penance: “Spend at least five minutes listening to someone with whom you don’t usually associate or whom you purposely avoid.” I warned them that they were not to argue or even comment. They were only to listen. They were to give the other person the time to speak about whatever they wanted to. In order to remind them of the penance, I handed each nun a red paper heart. A day or two later, the superior of the convent called me. “What did you do in the confessional this week?” she queried. Mindful of the seal of confession, I said that I could not share that information with her. She continued, “Well, whatever it was, there is something strange happening around here.”
Lent presents us with the challenge to improve ourselves. Let’s face it. After Lent, you will probably go back to eating chocolate. You will definitely go back to using Facebook. We cannot avoid sweets for the rest of our lives. You might be successful in breaking the smoking habit, but that’s a long shot. In other words, how will your Lenten discipline have changed you? Lent is about change. Lent is about conversion. It is not about discipline.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator