Why Don’t We Live Lent All Year Round?
COMMENTARY: Christianity is a beautifully dialectical balance, a balance leaning to one side and then the other.
The line wasn’t, I would have thought, controversial. But a Presbyterian, one of the hard, hard-core ones, thought it a line to snip at. I had written an article saying, “Lent trains us for this life. All its disciplines and deprivations help us to enjoy real pleasures, which opens us to the deep pleasures of life in Christ.”
Tweeting behind the name “Old Life,” the Presbyterian quoted the line and wrote, “Why not Lent all year then? The other seasons get upset?”
I’m 92% sure I know who this is. If I’m right, he’s a historian, a serious scholar and a leading member of one of the “Split Peas” Presbyterian denominations. (The mainline Presbyterian Church of America has a more liberal view of their tradition, while the splinter churches hold more closely to Reformation-era Calvinism.)
Presbyterians operate by the “regulative principle,” meaning they do nothing in worship they do not find in Scripture. As believers in sola scriptura, they find what they’re going to find, of course, which isn’t much. Some of the more exacting ones don’t observe the Church year, even in the typical Protestant version of celebrating Christmas and Easter and nothing else. Some argue that every Sunday is an Easter and they shouldn’t select one Sunday a year to celebrate the Resurrection in a special way.
The Natural Lent
I see the reasoning, but it misses the point in a way hard Protestants tend to do. Especially when they’re looking for ways to snip at the Catholic Church. Why do we observe Lent? Why does the Church pack so much asceticism, sacrifice and repentance into one six-week season of the Church year? And why does the Church do it again in a less rigorous way in the four weeks of Advent?
For one thing, human beings naturally do this. The hardcore Presbyterian thinks this a very good reason not to do it. Catholics believe that grace perfects nature, and that the natural human instinct to set aside days for celebration and remembrance is one to incorporate into our life together.
Even strong Calvinists celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. And other Protestants, too. A friend, an Orthodox deacon, grew up in the “Campbellite” churches of Christ. “We had the ‘every Sunday is Easter’ thing,” Steve Robinson wrote me. “But interestingly every Easter, the sermon was about how it was not ‘Easter’ but everyone dressed up in Easter-type Sunday clothes and we had an Easter-egg hunt for the kids.”
Human beings naturally create an annual cycle of days focused on important aspects of life. The Church accepts this, but corrects it. Left on our own, we’ll tend to create a lot more feasts than fasts. We have sound instincts in these things but will bend them in our favor. That’s one place that grace acting through the Church perfects nature. She adds fasts.
The Dialectical Lent
For another, a more important, reason, the Church knows how we develop through life. I don’t say “grow,” because we don’t really mature in our spiritual and moral lives without effort. The body grows, whatever we do, but the character doesn’t always. We can regress.
We grow by holding different truths together, especially when they seem to contradict each other. The Catholic life is dialectical: We keep doing two opposite things to make a better thing. We can only look closely at one thing at a time. So we fast and we feast. We observe Lent and celebrate Easter. To everything — and to each side of this dialectic — there is a season.
In Lent, the Church reminds us of our sins, of our many and usually eager participation in the fall of man and original sin. Lent makes us look at sides of ourselves we don’t want to look at.
At this point in the Church year, we can call Lent the thesis. As its antithesis, Easter contradicts Lent. The first says: “You’re a wretched sinner.” The second says: “You’re okay and God will make you better.” The first stresses the fall. The second stresses Christ’s work on the cross, and indirectly our creation in the image of God. Together they begin to create in us a synthesis: creatures more aware of our sins and failings and yet joining more deeply, more easily, more joyfully in God’s work to redeem us.
The dialectic operates even within these seasons. Lent points to Easter. We’re not doing all these things just to feel bad about ourselves. We do them because we know and love the Lord who died and rose again. And Easter reminds us of Lent. We love the Lord who died and rose again, while remembering that we are the reason he died.
The Rest of the Year
What about the rest of the year? In ordinary time we pursue the ordinary life of Christians. In the usual run of things, outside the fast and feast seasons, we live Lent and Easter together. But still alternating dialectically. We keep up our penances and sacrifices, though not as intensely as in Lent. We examine our consciences and go to confession. At the same time, we enjoy God’s gifts, especially Jesus’s presence with us in the Mass. We feast, though not intensively as in Easter season.
The early 20th-century theologian Friedrich von Hügel wrote in the lovely book Letters to a Niece:
“If we are Christians there are always two notes, suffering and joy. Gethsemane is awful, but it does not end with Gethsemane; there is the Resurrection. We want the whole of religion; renunciation and joy, the Cross and the Crown.”
Christians should not concentrate only on the Cross, he says:
“Christianity is the whole life of Christ. His life of mortification, of suffering and sacrifice, culminating, it is true, in the Cross. But I can't bear the obliterating of his life, that great life lived, the touching humility and love. And the parables — look at the inexhaustible wonder of the parables, how beautiful they are!”
Von Hügel concludes: “I like a balanced Christianity: Christianity is so balanced.”
It is balanced, in ways the world will never, can never, be. But it’s a dialectical balance, a balance leaning to one side and then the other. And this is why we don’t observe Lent all year. Because we believe in the Resurrection, too.