And so the last days of indulgence are upon us once more as Ash Wednesday creeps closer. Some of us will celebrate
by making merry and enjoying that last fling; others will feast on "fat foods" before entering the austerity of Lent; a few may have even begun their Lenten observance early, perhaps to lose weight or have that "beach body" by the time summer rolls around. But while shedding pounds and toning abs may be desirable outcomes, I believe our Lenten practice has two far more significant goals:
By fasting from excess and self-indulgence, we make room for things of the Spirit. Whether we cut down on our food intake or our use of social media, we allow ourselves to experience emptiness. Instead of stuffing the inner void with "things" or activities, we reserve that empty space for God. It is in that space that we carve out a "Holy of Holies" in which God can reside. In the silence and the emptiness, we enter into union with God, surrendering to the only Presence that will fill our restless hearts.
Re-building the Church/ Repairing the world
Both Church and world are in a state of disrepair, filled with divisions, destruction and corruption. The Church as an institution is going to have to re-invent itself to gain relevance and moral authority; the world must heal or it will be unable to sustain the 7.8 billion of us who are currently alive. Maintaining the
would be deadly for both the Church and for the world; change is both necessary and inevitable. What is called for, then, is a complete transformation of consciousness on the part of each human being. Lent offers Christians a season for reflection and intentional living. Instead of blaming, complaining and doing nothing, we can use this sacred time to re-think our contribution to the planet and to our religious institutions. Have we "opted out" because we believe the problems are insurmountable, or dare we go forward, in God's company, to renew not only ourselves but also the face of the Earth?
“You have heard that it was said,
You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be children of your heavenly Father,
for God makes the sun rise on the bad and the good,
and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?"
Who, exactly, are our enemies?
Each of us may have specific enemies -- a hostile boss, for example, or a passive aggressive co-worker, or a political opponent-- but, in general, "the enemy" is part of a collective, part of a group that is different from ourselves and different from those groups in which we hold membership. We are born into certain groups -- groups based on gender, nationality, race, ethnicity, culture, religion, class, income, status, geographical region, etc. Then there are the groups to which we
to belong -- political parties, health clubs, country clubs, charitable organizations, places of worship, arts associations, alumni groups, professional groups and so forth. From a very early age, we learn to define ourselves through our group memberships and to see those outside our groups as "other'; as we grow older, imitating the viewpoints of the dominant majority, we see "outsiders" as people to be feared, envied, ridiculed, avoided and despised. For certain groups, the "differing other" is more object than human and can therefore be controlled, scapegoated, abused, exploited, enslaved and even exterminated!
This fear of "the other" is so deep-seated that we often fail to recognize it. Prejudice begins with false information, misunderstandings and re-enforced stereotypes. This was a painful lesson I learned while attending Kindergarten and Form One at
St. Nicholas Day School
in Fleet, Hants. In the days before ecumenism, Catholic students did not participate in Church of England services nor in classroom prayer. Never having encountered Protestantism before, I relied on my older sister's version of what took place in the school chapel: not only did Protestants dance Rock and Roll down the aisle (or so my sister solemnly informed me), but, apparently, they were also responsible for the arrest, torture and beheading of Catholic clergy who were sometimes "hung, drawn and quartered." These "alternative facts" converted my five-year old self into a fierce
Defender of the Faith,
heightening my sense of "not belonging" while making me feel existentially at risk. These feelings were compounded by the fact that I was the only brunette amongst blond, blue-eyed "Angles" (not Angels!); moreover, my Maltese roots set me apart as "the Malteser," leading to teasing, bullying and social isolation. Happily, I survived my first two years of school!
Today, our world is divided not only geographically but also "tribally." Our membership in various groups seems to depend upon complete and total agreement with what other group members think, do and say and the simultaneous rejection of those outside the group. Even if we share some group affiliations with another person, if he or she holds membership in one of the groups antithetical to our own, then that person is "the enemy." A simple example would be how some religious leaders label, attack, and discriminate against members of the
community, even if they belong to the same faith tradition. Other obvious examples are the ways some Americans view undocumented migrants or citizens wearing distinctive religious attire (Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus) or the homeless sleeping alongside highways or under viaducts....
To see as God sees is to see beyond tribal differences, beyond group memberships, and, instead, to recognize our common humanity. The villain, Shylock, in Shakespeare's
The Merchant of Venice
, articulates what it is like to be an outsider:
"I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die?"
What will it take for us to move beyond deep-seated mistrust of the differing other to an all-inclusive love? How can we learn to see our face in the face of each stranger, and, ultimately to see the face of Christ in that face as well?