Lent has become the most counter-cultural liturgical season. Prayer, almsgiving, and fasting each, in different ways, challenge our self-assertive, hyper-consumerist culture. America celebrates the successful entrepreneur, the self-made man, the “power couple,” the indie artist whose work may be dreadful but is commended for “pushing the envelope,” the demagogue who, without anything resembling learning, pontificates on issues with more fervor than facts. We wallow in a plethora of consumer choices, each designed to help us sketch in, and alert others, to our lifestyle and its wonderfulness.
But, lifestyles are not wonderful, they are purchased. Life is wonderful and it is given not bought. Life is, indeed, defined in part by death, its preciousness partly reducible to the fact that it is fleeting and in part because the fact of death raises before us a specter for which no shopping mall or IKEA catalogue can offer an answer: This life, in all its wonder, will end. The great loneliness of death beckons. Death will come and separate us from those upon whose friendship and love we have come to rely for our sense of well-being and human worth. “Remember, O man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.”
The great champions of suspicion and skepticism – Freud, Marx and Nietzsche – argued that religion was really just a variety of projection, a myth designed to answer this loneliness of death and the consequent enigma of life. We Catholics plead guilty, but we should point out that the burden of proof rests on the skeptics. For every experience of need, I discover something that corresponds to that need. If I am hungry, there is food to nourish me. If I am thirsty, there is drink to slake my thirst. If I am cold, there are three beasts that jump into the bed and warm me. Why, then, should there be no reality that corresponds to this experience, this need, I discern? Why should my hunger to live forever with those I love have no corresponding food to fill that need? Why should this most human and humane desire, and this alone, have no answer?
Of course, as Catholics, we know that there is an answer to this existential need. We know that Jesus Christ, a person not a proposition, is the answer to all of our human desires. We know, as surely as I know that I am sitting here typing, that in Him, the joys and the sadnesses of life find a deeper meaning, that our sufferings find their human worth and our celebrations of happiness find roots that keep them from being fleeting, turning those celebrations into an eternal symphony of happiness. We know that the banquet beckons and, in the sacramental life of the Church, we find a foretaste of that banquet. “All you who are thirsty, come to the water! You who have no money, come, buy grain and eat; Come, buy grain without money, wine and milk without cost! Why spend your money for what is not bread; your wages for what does not satisfy? Only listen to me, and you shall eat well, you shall delight in rich fare.”
The 55th Chapter of Isaiah is perhaps my favorite chapter of the entire Bible, so filled with promise and hope. There is a reason that chapter is read each year at the Easter Vigil, the most solemn and joy-filled liturgy of the year. But, Lent requires us to prepare for Easter by inviting us not to rush too quickly to the second half of the couplets found in Isaiah 55. Lent invites us to ponder our hunger and our thirst for salvation so that, when we encounter the Risen Lord, we will recognize Him as the true Savior. This recognition requires us to first acknowledge that we need saving, that we are hungry and thirsty, that we do imprison ourselves in our own sins. The story of the Prodigal, the quintessential Lenten story, has a hinge – he turns. Lent invites us to meditate on the ways we live like the Prodigal before he turns.
The other night, at dinner, the subject of Mardi Gras came up. I have only been in New Orleans once for that seraglio of sin, and I am happy to report that I enjoyed it thoroughly. Of course, if Mardi Gras is seen merely as an invitation to be a pig, it is an event to be missed. But, seen through Catholic eyes, Mardi Gras is a great instructor about sin. Once, during an RCIA session, the presenter was explaining that sin is a stepping away from God’s plan, a violation of the natural law, that we sin because we refuse God and because Adam and Eve first sinned, saddling the rest of us with Original Sin, blah-blah-blah. I could stand it no longer and put up my hand. “I don’t know about anybody else, but I sin because it’s fun,” I offered. It is the eternal conundrum of the human condition that God made the apple in Eden so attractive. Mardi Gras reminds us that sin is fun, but it is not finally satisfying. Mardi Gras allows us to grasp what is meant in the Exsultet by “felix culpa,” the happy fault and necessary sin that gained for us so great a Savior. Mardi Gras takes the word sin out of the realm of abstraction and makes us admit to ourselves that we like to sin, it is fun, and only God can save us from it.
The other thing about Mardi Gras that was truly a revelation to me was the beads. I had thought that the only way to acquire said beads is to show one’s private parts, something I was disinclined to do. But, in fact, when you attend a parade, the people on the floats throw the beads at everyone. I turned to my friends who lived in New Orleans and who were serving as my hosts and asked, foolishly, “So, what do you do with the beads? I mean, do you win a prize if you get more beads than anybody else?” My friends replied that the only thing to do with the beads was to wear them, that there were no prizes for getting the most, that they had no value whatsoever. At that moment the scales fell from my eyes and I realized that Mardi Gras is the least Calvinistic event in America today. That alone is reason to cherish it.
The last few weeks have been a very interesting time for the Catholic Church in America. The controversy over the HHS mandates showed how different Catholicism is in our ecclesiological awareness from the way the ambient culture views religion. Catholics of all ideological dispositions refused to concede that our charities and hospitals were somehow not integral to our faith: We Catholics, after all, have distinctive views about the relationship of faith and works. We insisted that our colleges and universities are integral to the life of our Church because we Catholics also have distinctive views about the relationship between faith and reason. We insisted, rightly, that our faith is not a private matter, rejecting the Enlightenment view that religion has no public place and is best understood as something exclusively between the individual and God, done only on Sunday mornings and amongst ourselves. Whatever you thought about the debate over the HHS mandates, it was exhilarating to me to see liberal and conservative Catholics alike insisting on the fact that Catholics are different not just because of the Church’s teachings on contraception, but because we employ so many people in our hospitals and our charities and our universities, all in different ways, evidencing a distinctly Catholic view of the relationship of Church to society. Ours is a public faith in which the individual believer shapes his or her conscience not in isolation but together with the whole Church, the Church of Rome and Africa and Latin America, the Church of the fourth century and the Church of the nineteenth century, a faith that carries us from our worship to our world – Ite, Missa Est! – to bring the healing, teaching, feeding, clothing, welcoming, comforting ministry of Jesus to our broken world.
Now, in Lent, our Catholic distinctiveness shines through again, and not just because on this day it is easy to spot the Catholics in the crowd because of the smudges on our foreheads. In our busy, busy lives, we must find time in these forty days to pray. In our selfish, acquisitive world, we must find ways to help the poor. In a culture that celebrates every form of gluttony, from the Food Channel to Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous to the fevered speculation of what the stars will wear on the red carpet at the Oscars, we must find ways to deprive ourselves of earthly pleasures through fasting. Most of all, we must let the horrible words about being dust and returning to dust ring in our ears and sink into our hearts. Our world can solve many problems, but it cannot answer the enigma of human life because it cannot conquer the abysmal loneliness of death. It is right and fitting and spiritually necessary to prepare for that conquest we will celebrate at Easter, to focus first on what is conquered.