Lenten Life Cycles . . .

The Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian
O Lord and Master of my life, keep from me the spirit of indifference and discouragement, lust for power, and idle chatter.

Instead, grant to me, Your servant, the spirit of wholeness of being, humble-mindedness, patience, and love.

O Lord and King, grant me the grace to be aware of my sins and not to judge my brother; for You are blessed now and ever and forever. Amen.

Ephrem’s prayer strikes a chord for me. It  makes me want to talk to him. I like talking to folks who have struggled through their own demons and come out victorious.

I usually find these folks outside my local church circles. There’s something about believing you’re ‘righter than right’ that kills the spirit of self-examination.

Maybe it’s also a byproduct of limiting your social interactions to people who think and act like you. That cuts down on having to answer for your actions–as if leading a Christian life required segregation from challenging encounters to exist at all.

But enough with the criticism, I’m talking about Lent here, especially the practice of all things penitential. According to church historians, the penitential rites arose after the persecution of the early church ended. That makes sense. Why call for penitential practices when Christians were already being boiled in oil, decapitated, crucified, or fed to the lions.

Among Christian monastic ascetics and religious institutions, Lent traditionally began on September 14th, the Feast of the Holy Cross and continued all the way to Easter Sunday. Lenten rituals included a Black Fast – eating one meager meal per day, and abstaining from meat, protein, eggs, butter, cheese and milk.

Lent in religious communities also involved literally sharing the sufferings of Christ with rigorous penitential practices, like hair shirts and nail-spiked belts, both worn against the skin,  crowns of thorns, prostration, and public humiliation from authority figures like the Abbott or Prior. However, practices like nightly flagellation in individual ‘cells’, has been banned in most religious communities , because the practice led to widespread inappropriate ‘ecstatic occurrences’.

For the observant Christian, the Lenten season begins with either Clean Monday in the Eastern church or Ash (dirty?) Wednesday in the Western church. In our family, Lent was forty days of fasting, except for Sundays and Feast Days, and abstinence from meat on Ash Wednesday, Fridays, and Holy Week.

I remember school lunches that consisted of a slab of plain, dry cheese on stale white bread, occasionally broken with yummy  peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Friday night fish, and (happily) pierogies on Good Friday. As kids, we also abstained from candy, desserts, snacks, or anything else that smacked of indulgence or celebration. No movies, entertainment, or parties. Lent was all about discipline, penance, sensual deprivation, and atoning for our sins.

We all understood that Jesus died for all of us, but we were also well schooled in the necessity of adding our own small acts of penance to the mix. “Suffering with Jesus” carried the ecclesiastical weight of an ordinance–not strictly a sacrament, but strictly enforced.

That was a child’s understanding of the Gospel. I’m older now and aware that life brings enough opportunities for patient endurance without the pious, devotional, penitential practices of my youth. Penitential practice in the church has also evolved to a more altruistic focus–caring for our neighbors–even when our instincts urge us to ignore the opportunities.

There’s something heroic about sucking it up and doing whatever He asks, whenever He asks, cheerfully. It’s called dying to self.

No prolonged infancies among us, please. We’ll not tolerate babes in the woods, small children who are an easy mark for impostors. God wants us to grow up, to know the whole truth and tell it in love—like Christ in everything. We take our lead from Christ, who is the source of everything we do. He keeps us in step with each other. His very breath and blood flow through us, nourishing us so that we will grow up healthy in God, robust in love. (Ephesians 4:14-16)

This is the kind of fast day I’m after:
to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts.

What I’m interested in seeing you do is:
sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, being available to your own families.

Do this and the lights will turn on, and your lives will turn around at once. Your righteousness will pave your way. The God of glory will secure your passage. Then when you pray, God will answer.
You’ll call out for help and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.’ (Isaiah 58:6-9)

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