A Lenten Challenge

Thomas J. Euteneuer
Feb. 24, 2006
Reproduced with Permission

Lent begins next Wednesday with the acceptance of ashes on our foreheads and the practice of fast and abstinence. These rules and customs of the Church, as holy as they are, do not replace the one thing that the Church can't teach us through a ritual: self-renunciation. The only thing that will make this season different from the rest of the year is the degree to which we decide to uproot our selfishness. This is the Lenten challenge.

The power-of-positive-thinking piety that emanates from most of our nation's pulpits each Lent does us a grave injustice. We must avoid the temptation to whitewash Lent by making it into a season to do "positive" deeds. That misses the point by a mile and keeps us in a state of spiritual adolescence: good deeds are an expression of our ordinary faith in Ordinary Time! The color of Lent is purple for a reason: it is a penitential season, full of mature self-examination leading to a deepening repentance from our selfishness. If we miss that aspect of Lent we are just playing the piety game, and we waste forty good days that may change the world, starting with ourselves.

Most people tend to think that self-denial is some sort of a program of self-improvement. Giving up vices like smoking and drinking may improve our day-to-day living, but then again, it may make us even more miserable to live with! This approach to Lent, however, is still so absorbed with the self. It mires us in a concern about conduct and personal habits but does not bring us to the deepest conversion that Jesus sought to effect when He said, "Reform your lives!" (Not your habits.) Habits change when hearts change, and then good works usually flow out of us naturally as a sign that the selfish blockages have been removed.

The renunciation of selfishness is not an abstract concept or ideal. Selfishness is very concrete. I am selfish in this, that or the other way, and I won't grow spiritually unless I get it out of my system. The Church can't determine ahead of time what that specific renunciation must be for each individual. The answer to that question is rooted in each person's own self-understanding and basic honesty. That is why a prophet like John the Baptist stands over the season like a sentinel awaiting the dawn. He knew a lot about self-denial, the intrepid practice of "laying the axe to the root of the tree" and unearthing the main cause of our worldly attachments and selfish desires. Whatever is not of God must go so that we can be much more for God in this world and prepare ourselves for the world to come.

As we begin this holy season let us ask ourselves not what we are going to give up for Lent. We have to be more radical than that. We must ask ourselves what selfishness in us we are going to eradicate that will put us on the road to Christ's Resurrection forty days hence.