The Church is always about the business of celebrating her Lord and His gifts. That is to say that receiving the good gifts of Christ our Redeemer is the Church's life and delight. However, this celebration is not always of the same tone. Sometimes it is more restrained, more disciplined. Such restraint is no less celebratory, and no less joyful; in fact, in some ways it is an even more focused and intense celebration precisely because of this restraint. Consider how water that is channelled through a narrowed passage becomes all the more intensely focused on its object. So it is with Lent; we celebrate the joys of the season in a particularly restrained manner, and also in a particularly focused manner, and that focus, to be sure, is the cross.
The character of this restrained joy in Lent, we might say, has a couple of components, the liturgical, and the devotional, and in some ways they intersect with each other. These reflections, however, pertain to the latter, which can be boiled down to the three disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. As I was pondering these things, it occurred to me that the colloquialism which forms the first several words of the title of this post actually sums up nicely the traditional spiritual disciplines of Lent, and the Christian's attitude toward the special joy of this season. Put your hands together and give it up for Lent. Allow me to elaborate.
Put your hands together
Prayer is part of the essence of the life of the Church, no matter what season is in question. Prayer is such an important part of the life of the Church that in his 1539 book On the Councils and the Church Martin Luther wrote that it is one of the seven chief ways by which the Church is known. Such a high view of prayer was not invented in 1539, but is the teaching of the whole tradition of the Church, which we receive first of all from Holy Writ. Saint Paul writes that we should “pray without ceasing.” With David the Christian confesses, “Seven times a day do I praise thee, because of thy righteous judgements,” a saying which not only provides the pattern for the noble discipline of the Divine Office, but also reflects the Christian attitude that the whole of life is one of prayer. Indeed, the entire Psalter commences by teaching of the blessed man: “his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law will he exercise himself day and night.”
But what is prayer? Though it has been given many definitions, at its most essential we might say that Christian prayer is engaging God’s holy Word in such a way both as to hear His Word and to learn from it how to respond to Him in faith. Thus prayer is a holy intercourse between the Christian soul and our Redeemer and Lord. It might be helpful to set the record straight on what prayer is not. On the one hand, as implied above, prayer is not the mere word of man. If all one ever does when he prays is share his thoughts with God, and ask God for favors, then he hasn’t yet learned true prayer. On the other hand, all the way on the other end of the spectrum of ways to misunderstand prayer, is the notion that holds prayer to be a veritable sacrament. The term sacrament is rich enough to be applied in a number of ways, so let us be clear. Prayer is not the end of the Christisan’s spiritual life. Rather, in prayer the Christian celebrates the promises of his baptism, and by it is led continually back to the sacramental treasures of Holy Absolution and the Holy Eucharist. A healthy prayer life accomplishes these things by first reminding us of our sin, and then by reminding us of the comforting gospel of the forgiveness of sins which Christ won for us by the Paschal mystery of His holy passion, death, and resurrection. To drive home the point that meditating upon the Word in faith can be a strong vehicle for the Gospel, consider what Luther writes in his treatise, A Simple Way to Pray, namely, “The Holy Spirit Himself preaches here, and one word of his sermon is far better than a thousand of our prayers. Many times I have learned more from one prayer than I might have learned from much reading and speculation.” Let us emphasize, however, that these evangelical results of prayer are in no way brought about by man’s action, but by the Word upon which the Christian meditates in faith. We are considering here prayer most widely viewed. Furthermore, rather than seeking out grace by means of prayer, the discipline of prayer impels us to run to the gifts given out by means of the Church’s Ministry.
While prayer is the way of the Christian in general, it is a discipline in which he engages with renewed vigor during the Lenten journey. There are many ways by which one may increase his efforts at prayer during Lent. One is to pray the Divine Office. This requires time and resources which are not readily available to many people who have worldly callings to which they must attend. To the extent that one is able to participate in the Daily Office, however, it is a most commendable and rewarding form of prayer. It immerses the Christian in the Psalter, of which Luther says that it "is so very dear to me" (A Simple Way to Pray), and it also facilitates the hearing of much more of the rest of scripture than one would get by only attending the Mass. Seminarians, deacons, presbyters, as well as others who commit their lives to special service in the Church, certainly ought to make time for the Daily Office. I also recommend that parishes, and university chapels, strive to institute the public celebration of the Divine Office once or twice each week, so that the people may join if they desire. A Saturday vespers, for example (which is really the First Vespers of Sunday) or perhaps a morning office before Sunday Mass.
Beside the Divine Office, the Church has given us many traditional forms of prayer which are wonderfully suited for Lenten devotion. One might pray the seven penitential psalms, along with the classic Litany, especially on Fridays. One might walk the Way of the Cross, and if your church does not have one, then you can certainly pray this devotion on your own. I also suggest praying through the Small Catechism of Luther, especially if you have not done so in a while. You can pray it in a day, or spread it out to a month or more. Each phrase will have enough nourishment for you to chew it repeatedly, just like a good sheep would chew its food.
Lent is also a good time simply to renew your efforts to engage in the basic prayers upon waking and retiring, and before and after meals, which Luther gives us in the Catechism. Such a routine is healthy for the soul, and a very good example for the whole family.
And give it up for Lent
Fasting is prized by the whole tradition of the Church, which of course includes the witness of the scriptures themselves. Like prayer, it is capable of being abused, and being done unthinkingly, and for all the wrong reasons. Nevertheless, when it is done in humility, and in a spirit of prayer, it is a wonderful means for the growth and vitality of the spirit. This is perhaps counterintuitive, but it is very much the case. For when one dies to himself, even a little, and mortifies the flesh, as it were, with its desires and urges, one begins to become more attuned to his sins, to the needs of others, and to the areas in his life that need the true nutrition of the spirit. I would not urge fasting upon the old, the young, the pregnant, the ill, or the weak. Those who are able, and fit for this discipline, however, I encourage in the strongest terms. As you fast, be sure to feast all the more upon the Word in prayer and meditation, and on the sustenance of the Holy Eucharist.
I would add just an additional thought or two on the current culture of fasting in our church. People love to jump on those who are deemed to be talking too much about fasting, and claim that this is the sin of immodesty or boastfulness. That fasting can too easily cross the line between humility and boastfulness we admitted above, but in many cases the best judge of when that happens is the individual himself, for others do not know the reason or intent of the one who might be speaking of his own fasting. In general it is indeed wise to refrain from speaking very much about it, for the sake of modesty. Yet this ought in no way prevent the Christian community, whether in terms of friends, or family, or groups in the parish, or whatever, from discussing the ins and outs of the Lenten fast. For there is a churchly culture, and even if only a small percentage of the people actually choose to fast, it is good, needful, and loving for the others to ask them what we, the church, can do to help facilitate their efforts, etc. Another thought, I have seen some of the same people who boast of their not fasting also engage in boasting of what they will eat on the day before Lent begins, or how they will feast on Easter. And I do not say this to impugn their motives. The motives of many such are quite innocent. Yet I urge all to consider that the very reason for much of what traditionally is eaten on Fat Tuesday is to clear the kitchen of what will not be consumed for Lent. Likewise, the reason, traditionally, behind many of the things we enjoy on Easter, and in the Easter season, is that these are the very things that were left out of the diet in Lent. The sweets, the eggs, the meat, etc. My point, then, is not to call for a harsh, Carthusian fast during Lent so as to justify the feasting that takes place before and after Lent; rather, my point is simply to urge that we return to something more resembling a healthy balance. We modern Americans have got the feasting part down. And there is not necessarily anything wrong with that part. But it cannot be fully appreciated when the other part, the fasting, falls into disuse. There is a healthy balance, a rhythm, in the traditional culture of the Church, and fasting is part of it.
Give it up, part ii
Almsgiving, like the other two disciplines, can be abused. It can be practiced immodestly, and for all the wrong reasons. I suggest, however, that where this has happened, that instead of giving up the discipline, we instead reform the spirit behind it. For there are people in real need, both close and far, and they honestly need your help no matter what your motive is. Having said that, let your spirit of love rule your giving and all of the ways you might find to be of help and service to others. If you have faith, let it show in your love in this world. Ask if your church has a special collection for the poor in the community, and if it does not, maybe you can help institute one. Seek out ways to help feed the hungry. And just learn to become more aware of the needs of those around you.
There is indeed a special joy of Lent. As Saint Augustine puts it, the precepts of Matthew 6 (on fasting, prayer, etc.) "aim to make us focus our intentions wholly on the interior joys." When practiced in a spirit of Christian love, these disciplines serve to plunge us into the life of our Sacred Head, the One, and only one, Whose life of prayer, fasting, and giving of His own treasures for the good of others is perfect, and perfectly salutary.
As a postscript to this reflection, let me add that though this may seem like an untimely posting, let it serve as an encouragement even for this the last and most holy week of Lent. I think that too often Christians think of the Lenten fast, or for that matter any of the Lenten disciplines, much the same way they might think of, say, a New Year's resolution. That is, when it doesn't seem to work out quite the way it was intended way back on Ash Wednesday, one all too easily decides to give up. But each day of Lent is a new day worthy of the discipline of Lent. And it is never too late to die to yourself, and live anew in faith toward our Redeemer and in love toward our neighbor.