Trust and Hope in the Lord — That Is the Purpose of Lent
Lenten penances, whether done poorly or well, are meant to bring us closer to Christ.
Lent is notoriously a time for discovering our mixed motives. Is that social media fast about rectifying my attention deficit, or is half the fun being able to announce (on Facebook of course) that I’m going off Facebook for Lent? Am I going vegan because it will help my soul, or is it because my Eastern Rite buddies have been seriously showing me up for years? Are these ashes about the state of my soul, or am I wearing them to give other people a hint about their souls?
The ashes are a significant point, since the distribution of them on Ash Wednesday is so universal and (in countries like ours where they are smeared on the forehead) so clear a cultural signifier. It can be almost enjoyable, for a few hours, to experience what many religious minorities experience on a constant basis: the sense of looking different from everybody else, the feeling of being set apart, “holy” in the etymological sense. That is not, however, the reason for ashes. The ashes are supposed to remind us that we are dust returning to dust; they are, in fact, rather gruesome when one gets right down to it. A Catholic showing up at the office with his morning Mass attendance thus blazoned on his forehead is less like a Sikh in his turban or a Hasidic Jew in his yarmulke than he is like a zombie showing up with the fresh blood on his mouth. “Paging normies!” the ashes say. “We’re all going to die!”
This is probably why ashes make many Catholics today feel uncomfortable. They should make us uncomfortable. Perhaps it was not always so. Perhaps there was a time when ashes were culturally cool. Now, for better or for worse, they make it obvious that Catholics are weird. Unlike the hypocrites who blow a trumpet when giving alms, who pray on street corners and who look gloomy when they fast, the Catholic who wears ashes is undergoing a form of mild public embarrassment. It’s a good introduction to Lent, frankly, since it is a form of penance that attacks our regard for our own external dignity — which is what Jesus so strongly warns us against idolizing in the Ash Wednesday gospel about almsgiving, prayer and fasting.
It is possible, of course, despite this built-in reminder, to be humble — to begin Lent with a penance that is more about show than about a real alteration of self. But by this time in the season, with Holy Week just around the corner, most of us have tried to give up looking good to whomever it was we were trying to impress (even if that was only ourselves).
Still, there are always more mixed motives. Did I give up chocolate for Jesus, or for my waistline? Is fasting good for my soul, or am I leaning in too much on the ancillary benefits to my concentration? Is getting up the first time the alarm rings — what St. Josemaría Escrivá called “the heroic minute” — about aligning my life with the Lord, or is it about getting more stuff done in the wee early hours? Am I really slaying Lent this year? Is that a good thing?
This impossibility of recognizing the real state of our soul, irrespective of how well we seem to be performing externally, is probably why the Church gives us gut checks throughout the season of Lent — repeated reminders that what really counts is our inward disposition, rather than our external ability to pull off an amazingly arduous sacrifice. Isaiah reminds the people that feeding the hungry and “removing oppression, false accusation and malicious speech” are the way to delight in the Lord. James and John, championed by their mother, are warned that they will drink of Jesus’s chalice — but also told that even martyrdom doesn’t guarantee a particular place in the kingdom. And Jeremiah cautions his listeners about the “tortuous” nature of the human heart.
I’ve written about this passage from Jeremiah before and the traditional translations that describe the human heart as “perverse” or use some other negative adjective. “Tortuous” is, for a variety of reasons, probably a better translation than “perverse,” but one obvious reason is contextual. Jeremiah has just described two people: the “cursed” man “who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh” and the “blessed” man “who trusts in the Lord, whose hope is the Lord.” The remark about tortuous hearts follows immediately on the latter description:
More tortuous than all else is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it? I, the Lord, alone probe the mind and test the heart, to reward everyone according to his ways, according to the merit of his deeds. (Jeremiah 17:9-10)
It is a fairly obvious warning to anyone hearing the prophecy not to be too certain about self-identifying with the blessed man who “like a tree planted beside the waters … stretches out its roots to the stream.” You might, of course, be “doing Lent right” — but then again, doing Lent right is about your nearness to God, not about your ability to fulfill even the most demanding of penances. On the other hand, it may also be a comforting verse: if you happen to be feeling more like the “barren bush in the desert that … stands in a lava waste, a salt and empty earth,” well, maybe that’s because you are one. But maybe it is because you are in fact doing Lent right, and you happen to be experiencing some of the spiritual trials that oftentimes go along with a sincere attempt to grow closer to God.
The point is, Jeremiah seems to be saying, you simply cannot know: “I, the Lord, alone probe the mind and test the heart.” The only thing we can do is keep before ourselves as much as we can the constant reminder not to trust our flesh — whether it is fasting just fine, thank you very much, or betraying us every five minutes — but rather to keep stretching our roots towards the living waters.