Many of my Protestant friends are uncomfortable with Lent. "It's
all about mortification and self-discipline when we know that the Risen Jesus is
joyful and alive!" they say. "We don't need to mortify ourselves to please God.
That's why Jesus died for us, so we don't have be 'good enough'.
Moreover, Catholics call it a 'holy season' and Paul says in Colossians 2:16-17
that we shouldn't observe any day as special. So hasn't the Church disobeyed the
Bible by doing the Lenten thing?"
Before we talk about Lent as a supposed way of "being good enough" for God,
let's begin with this last objection first: that the Lenten season is somehow
unbiblical. Now with all due respect, this seems to me to miss the whole point,
not only of Paul's warning in Colossians, but of being a human being. For
consider how we behave in all the areas of life we don't stick in the religion
bin for special treatment.
We observe birthdays and anniversaries, for instance. Are we denying God's word
in doing so? Or are we simply doing what all humans do when they have occasion
to celebrate or honor something? Likewise, we observe anniversaries, National
Save-the-Endangered-Squid Week, Mother's Day and moments of silence for victims
of the Challenger disaster. Why? Because a basic human way of honoring and
loving something is to set aside a span of time in reserve for it. It's why we
have story times for our kids and romantic times with our spouses and quiet
times with God. It wouldn't be the same without such a time of focused
Now Lent is a 40 day quiet time in which we are called to do nothing more or
other than focus on the sufferings of Jesus in same way. Just as birthdays cause
us to zero in on the happy occasion of birth and the remembrance of November 22,
1963, gives us pause to contemplate the life and death of President Kennedy, so
Lent calls us to attend carefully to the Christ Who denies himself for our
sakes, goes into the wilderness and confronts evil in preparation for his great
saving work. It leads up to the great drama of the Passion just as Christ's
whole life did. And as he spent 40 days in the wilderness (like Israel's 40
years in the wilderness), so we are called to "follow him" there as we must
follow him to Golgotha. "If anyone would be my disciple," says Jesus, "he must
deny himself, take up his cross and follow me."
Lent then is "an acceptable time" for contemplating and doing this work of
following. That is, it's appropriate to celebrate those 40 days here, right
before the Passion and Resurrection week just as it is appropriate for my
friends to celebrate my birthday on its anniversary and not just any old time
they feel like.
A Family Celebration
This brings us to another point about Lent: it is a family celebration. Imagine
how you'd feel if you invited a guest to a birthday party and he replied, "I'll
celebrate your birthday by staying home and thinking about you from time to
time. I'm just not a joiner, so I'd rather not bother with all those other
people at the party. I don't really care for your friends." If all the guests
did that, there'd be no celebration. Yet many people think just this
individualistically about the Christian life.
But the fact is we are called to observe Lent (like all things Christian), not
as hermits who are separating themselves from the "impure" but as the Body of
Christ growing "to the full maturity of Christ the head, through whom the whole
body grows, and with the proper functioning of the members joined firmly
together by each supporting ligament, builds itself up in love" (Eph. 4:15-16).
This is the key to understanding what Paul is really talking about when he warns
the Colossians against letting anyone "pass judgment on you in terms of what you
eat or drink or what you do on yearly or monthly feasts, or the the sabbath. All
these were a shadow of things to come; the reality is the body of Christ" (Col.
Paul is not saying here or anywhere else "Fasts and mortifications are bad
because Jesus died for you and you are saved by grace." How could he when both
he and Jesus fasted? Moreover, just a few lines later he writes urging the
Colossians to "Put to death [that is, mortify] whatever belongs to your earthly
nature" (Col 3:5). So what's Paul saying? Don't cut ourselves off from the
reality that disciplines like fasting point to: The Church which is the body of
Scripture is therefore emphatically not saying "Don't observe Lent." Rather it
says "Don't cop a super-spiritual, holier-than-thou fat attitude over your
brothers and sisters. Go through Christ's trials in union with Him and with the
members of his Body. For you are part of that body too!"
How Catholics View Suffering
That's why Paul talks (in that same letter to the Colossians) about "filling up
in his flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's sufferings for the sake
of his body, which is the Church" (Col 1:24). Does Paul mean that Jesus' cross
is insufficient to save us? Nope. He means that his sufferings are to be joined
Christ's and offered for the sake of his Body. In short, he is talking about
being crucified with Christ and (like Christ) for the love of his people.
For Catholics see suffering, not as something we do to be "good enough for God,"
but rather as God's strangest gift to us. And we do so because, like the
Apostles who counted themselves fortunate to be worthy of suffering for the Name
(Acts 5:41), we agree with Scripture that it is an undeserved honor (and one we
could never earn) to "be found worthy of suffering for the Name" (if our little
acts of charity and abstinence can even be compared with his complete act of
self-denial which made us "good enough" for God 2,000 years ago).
So in the end, my Protestant friends have nothing to worry about. For Lent is
not anti-scriptural. It is not something we give to God to earn his love, but
rather his gift of love to us which he wants us to share. It is not primarily
about fasting. Or abstaining. Or dryness. Or doing without. To be sure, it
involves these indispensible things, but it does so as health involves exercise.
If we live only for fasting we are as wrongheaded as a health nut who lives only
But if we remember that the real goal of both Lent and health is life, love, and
union with God and neighbor in the Passion and Resurrection of Christ, we are
free to join Jesus in the desert and find, through him, with him and in him, the
gift of life for others — and for ourselves.
Mark Shea. "The Gift of Lent." CatholicExchange.com (February 13,
This article reprinted with permission from CatholicExchange.com.