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Lent in the 21st Century: Does it have a place?

30 November, 1999

Breda O’Brien, columnist with The Irish Times reflects on the meaning of Lent and its place in today’s world.

If Lent were a commercial institution, it would long since have been re-packaged and re-launched with a strong marketing plan. Just as well it is not a commercial institution because one of the beauties of Lent is its apparent senselessness in today’s world.

Ask teenagers about it and they will talk about giving up sweets, which often meant stockpiling them until Easter Sunday and then suffering from acute nausea when all the sweets were wolfed down together. Or they might mention Trócaire boxes, and helping the Developing World. They have little or no sense of Lent being a time of change, of preparation for the most important Christian feast of the year – Easter.

They are not alone. Our imaginary marketing team would probably point out that while Easter may be in theory the pre-eminent Christian feast, the reality is that Christmas holds first place in our affections and in our pockets. It’s not hard to see why. It is so much easier to relate to a tiny child born in difficult circumstances than to a bloodied corpse. All of us know through experience what a newborn child is like. We have no direct experience of bodily resurrection. Small wonder that Santa wins hands down over the Easter Bunny.

The season of Lent comes in part from the whole church community sharing the journey of the new catechumen, the men and women who would have been baptised at Easter. Conscious of the great privilege they were receiving, they went through a rigorous process of preparation, and the whole community went through it with them. That sense of solidarity, though separated from the notion of becoming a new Christian, remained right up until Vatican II
My parents spoke of ‘the black fast’, of knowing that everyone else was going through the same deprivation, and the sense of relief when Easter Sunday dawned. Not only was Christ risen, but all sorts of food tasted twice as sweet after being sacrificed for six weeks. Not that it was entirely a golden era. My father also spoke of the ‘Connie dodgers’ peculiar to his neighbours in the next county, Cork. Apparently Bishop Cornelius Lucey had sanctioned two biscuits with a cup of tea, and the canny Corkonians proceeded to bake biscuits the size of a side plate, thereby staying within the letter if not the spirit of the directive.

The notion of fast and abstinence, though far less demanding nowadays, is one with which the average person has little sympathy. That may seem a strange statement when the latest celebrity diet will result in acres of newsprint and comment, but the modern obsession with diets has little to do with fasting and
abstinence. To fast or abstain is to give up a good thing, for a ~ greater end. Our bodies are partners in this enterprise, giving us a reminder that Christianity is not a religion of the intellect only, but of the whole person. Nowadays, we tend to think that our grandparents and greatgrandparents had very unfortunate attitudes to the body, particularly in the area of sexuality. However, there is a new distaste for the body which is often masked by our obsession with it. Take the workaholics. They push their bodies to the limit, ignoring the need for rest and living off the ‘rush’ which comes with the pounding adrenaline pouring into the body as yet another impossible deadline looms. It treats our bodies as menial servants, which exist only to facilitate our achievement of the next goal.

In another distortion, when we do think about our bodies, it is often about their flaws, and this triggers attempts to make them fit some impossible cultural stereotype of the body beautiful. This is not much of an improvement over ignoring the body’s needs completely. Each approach makes an object of the body. It ignores the profound link between body and soul, a link given eternal dignity by the doctrine of the resurrection of the body.

Lent, then, might be a time when we reflect on how we treat our bodies. Francis of Assisi may have referred to his body as ‘Brother Ass’, but that takes on a different complexion when we look at the depth of his love for all of creation. Our bodies allow us to touch, to taste, to hold, to love. They ground us. Through our bodies we express our spirits.

Our love for beauty has been somewhat mangled in a world where appearance is everything. Often the perfectly groomed face and body is ultimately empty, while the wrinkled face and kind eyes are truly beautiful. Recently I was at a conference where Baroness Shirley Williams, the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords, spoke. She said much with which I agreed, and much with which I disagreed, but what struck me most was her integrity which seemed perfectly in tune with her physical being, simple and unadorned as it was. So profound was the effect of her integrity, that another speaker said that he would have to be careful, or Shirley Williams would persuade him to re-join the Catholic Church he had left twenty years before.

One of the most puzzling aspects of Christ is his humanity. Allah, as worshipped by Muslims is distant and revered, but they see incarnation as a blasphemous notion. Buddhists do not worship Gautama, but his serene detachment is far from the sweat, blood and tears of Jesus. It is not strange that it is a ‘stumbling block to Greeks and a scandal to the Jews.’ ‘God with us’ is indeed a bizarre notion, one that takes everything we think we know and tosses it up in the air.

A Northern friend of mine used to implore, ‘Give my head peace.’ Christianity gives our bodies peace and acceptance, because they are at once our means of loving, and our aching reminders that there is more. As our bodies fail, become less beautiful, they remind us that it is really only the foolish who disregard the spirit which animates these bodies of ours. Christ died young, only thirty-three, still presumably at the height of His powers. Yet how many ailing, elderly people have taken solid comfort from his physical suffering, from the fact that he did not evade death, but embraced it. In his weakness, his indignity, he eventually triumphed through the love of his Father.

It is not a message that suits the cult of the body beautiful. Earlier this year, a well-known writer, Olivia Goldsmith, author of the ‘First Wives Club’ died from complications following a general anaesthetic.  She had been having a plastic surgery operation to remove loose skin under her chin. She was 54. This tragic waste reflects an attitude to the body that is far from Christian.

 Should we then eat, drink and be merry, and to hell with the cholesterol readings? Again, Lent is a reminder that excess is not the answer, either. To treat our bodies tenderly, to care for them, to eat what is healthy and to exercise, is not narcissism but gratitude for an unsurpassed gift – the gift of life. After all, if we do not love the body we are in, we have little hope of understanding the concept of the Body of Christ.

How earthy a notion that is, how different to the way we normally feel about those baffling and irritating people who are our fellow believers. St. Paul assures us that we are as intimately connected to them as an ear to a foot. We could probably do worse than spend some time this Lent reflecting on not only our own physical body and how we treat it, but how that impacts on our
ability to fulfil our irreplaceable role in the Body of Christ. 

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