Most of us have come to associate Lenten disciplines with ash-smeared faces; straining to give up cocktails, caffeine, candy, or calories; boycotting meat at meals; or rising an hour earlier for prayer. One of the consequences is that we often reach the end of Lent like runners gasping across the finish line, exhausted by the effort and exhilarated at having mastered the challenge. But rarely are such practices life-changing. Our ancestors wondered why God seemed to take no notice of our efforts. Perhaps these are related: God, who knows all things, knows when we amend our lives, and when we do not.
Followers of John the Baptist came to Jesus to ask why his disciples did not fast, and Jesus explained to them the futility of putting new wine, still fermenting and aging, into brittle, old wineskins that could not expand to contain it. New wine needs new wineskins.
Luke tells us that when Jesus called Levi, the tax collector, to follow him, Levi threw a party! While others paraded around in sackcloth and ashes, bemoaning their sins, Jesus sat at table with tax collectors, enjoying the food, drink, and laughter. When the scribes and the Pharisees complained, Jesus very matter-of-factly explained the obvious: I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.
The observance of a holy Lent is intended to rescue us from individualistic piety, from sentimentality, and from the futility of attempting to save ourselves. During this season of the year, we stand in solidarity with those who will be admitted to the Body of Christ at the Great Vigil of Easter, and with penitents who are being restored to the community of faith.
Lent calls us to prepare for the great party that awaits us in Paradise, by renewing our ties with the community of the faithful and with the communion of saints, and by deepening our relationship with the incarnate God we meet in our companionship with others.
Carol Cole Flanagan
Appointed readings for today: Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 103, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21