Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
Many of my Protestant friends are uncomfortable with Lent. "It's all about mortification and self-discipline when we know that the Risen Jesus is joyful and alive!" they say. "We don't need to mortify ourselves to please God. That's why Jesus died for us, so we don't have be 'good enough'. Moreover, Catholics call it a 'holy season' and Paul says in Colossians 2:16-17 that we shouldn't observe any day as special. So hasn't the Church disobeyed the Bible by doing the Lenten thing?"
Before we talk about Lent as a supposed way of "being good enough" for God, let's begin with this last objection first: that the Lenten season is somehow unbiblical. Now with all due respect, this seems to me to miss the whole point, not only of Paul's warning in Colossians, but of being a human being. For consider how we behave in all the areas of life we don't stick in the religion bin for special treatment.
We observe birthdays and anniversaries, for instance. Are we denying God's word in doing so? Or are we simply doing what all humans do when they have occasion to celebrate or honor something? Likewise, we observe anniversaries, National Save-the-Endangered-Squid Week, Mother's Day and moments of silence for victims of the Challenger disaster. Why? Because a basic human way of honoring and loving something is to set aside a span of time in reserve for it. It's why we have story times for our kids and romantic times with our spouses and quiet times with God. It wouldn't be the same without such a time of focused attention.
Now Lent is a 40 day quiet time in which we are called to do nothing more or other than focus on the sufferings of Jesus in same way. Just as birthdays cause us to zero in on the happy occasion of birth and the remembrance of November 22, 1963 gives us pause to contemplate the life and death of President Kennedy, so Lent calls us to attend carefully to the Christ Who denies himself for our sakes, goes into the wilderness and confronts evil in preparation for his great saving work. It leads up to the great drama of the Passion just as Christ's whole life did. And as he spent 40 days in the wilderness (like Israel's 40 years in the wilderness), so we are called to "follow him" there as we must follow him to Golgotha. "If anyone would be my disciple," says Jesus, "he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me."
Lent then is "an acceptable time" for contemplating and doing this work of following. That is, it's appropriate to celebrate those 40 days here, right before the Passion and Resurrection week just as it is appropriate for my friends to celebrate my birthday on its anniversary and not just any old time they feel like.
This brings us to another point about Lent: it is a family celebration. Imagine how you'd feel if you invited a guest to a birthday party and he replied "I'll celebrate your birthday by staying home and thinking about you from time to time. I'm just not a joiner, so I'd rather not bother with all those other people at the party. I don't really care for your friends." If all the guests did that, there'd be no celebration. Yet many people think just this individualistically about the Christian life. But the fact is we are called to observe Lent (like all things Christian), not as hermits who are separating themselves from the "impure" but as the Body of Christ growing "to the full maturity of Christ the head, through whom the whole body grows, and with the proper functioning of the members joined firmly together by each supporting ligament, builds itself up in love" (Ephesians 4:15-16).
This is the key to understanding what Paul is really talking about when he warns the Colossians against letting anyone "pass judgment on you in terms of what you eat or drink or what you do on yearly or monthly feasts, or the Sabbath. All these were a shadow of things to come; the reality is the body of Christ" (Col. 2:16-17). Paul is not saying here or anywhere else "Fasts and mortifications are bad because Jesus died for you and you are saved by grace." How could he when both he and Jesus fasted? Moreover, just a few lines later he writes urging the Colossians to "Put to death [that is, mortify] whatever belongs to your earthly nature" (Colossians 3:5). So what's Paul saying? Don't cut ourselves off from the reality to which disciplines like fasting point: The Church which is the body of Christ.
Scripture is therefore emphatically not saying "Don't observe Lent." Rather it says "Don't cop a super-spiritual, holier-than-thou fat attitude over your brothers and sisters. Go through Christ's trials in union with Him and with the members of his Body. For you are part of that body too!"
That's why Paul talks (in that same letter to the Colossians) about "filling up in his flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's sufferings for the sake of his body, which is the Church" (Colossians 1:24). Does Paul mean that Jesus' cross is insufficient to save us? Nope. He means that his sufferings are to be joined Christ's and offered for the sake of his Body. In short, he is talking about being crucified with Christ and (like Christ) for the love of his people. For Catholics see suffering, not as something we do to be "good enough for God", but rather as God's strangest gift to us. And we do so because, like the Apostles who counted themselves fortunate to be worthy of suffering for the Name (Acts 5:41), we agree with Scripture that it is an undeserved honor (and one we could never earn) to "be found worthy of suffering for the Name" (if our little acts of charity and abstinence can even be compared with his complete act of self-denial which made us "good enough" for God 2,000 years ago).
So in the end, my Protestant friends have nothing to worry about. For Lent is not anti-scriptural. It is not something we give to God to earn his love, but rather his gift of love to us which he wants us to share. It is not primarily about fasting. Or abstaining. Or dryness. Or doing without. To be sure, it involves these indispensable things, but it does so as health involves exercise. If we live only for fasting we are as wrongheaded as a health nut who lives only for running. But if we remember that the real goal of both Lent and health is life, love, and union with God and neighbor in the Passion and Resurrection of Christ, we are free to join Jesus in the desert and find, through him, with him and in him, the gift of life for others—and for ourselves.