Let’s end Lent

Editor’s note: The following essay appeared in the February 27, 1982, issue of America. It elicited several strong responses, including a rare rebuke from editor Joseph A. O’Hare, SJ, who wrote an accompanying commentary in the same issue, writing, “I think most people are on something very solid when they approach Lent as a time to get rid of some of the clutter in their lives, to silence some of the jangle in their hearts and to awaken that seasonal hunger that can remind us of who we really are and what we really want. You can read Father O’Hare’s full response here.

Washingtonians accustomed to hearing me preach know that I take particular pleasure on Ash Wednesday in chastising those present for the penitential liturgies that begin this uniquely Catholic period of chest-pounding. I remind them that many more of them are present that day than there will be on Ascension Thursday, even though it is (in traditional terminology) a “feast of obligation”. And I have to beat my chest and admit that I am making extra effort to improve the 40 Days to Easter Liturgies as these will be much busier than the 40 Days to Easter Masses. Isn’t it strange that 2,000 years after the Resurrection, the emphasis in Christianity is even more on the cross than on the empty tomb? We are not a resurrection people.

I fail to preach the minimization of Lent. At the end of last spring, one of the participants in my daily mass changed jobs, so that it was no longer convenient for him to attend my midday mass. Before leaving, he thanked me for my liturgies, “especially during Lent”. Mildly enraged, I returned to my desk and collapsed in dismay. Once again, I had been more successful in what I was trying to suppress than in what I was trying to promote.

Isn’t it strange that 2,000 years after the Resurrection, the emphasis in Christianity is even more on the cross than on the empty tomb?

What makes people have feelings of guilt? Are they inherently masochistic, so that there is an unnatural fondness for penitential acts? Although my experience is primarily with Catholics, I do not believe that the guilt complex is limited to them. My Jewish rabbi friends tell me that Jews are also prone to show their repentance, especially on Yom Kippur. And that of Philip Roth Portnoy’s Complaint literary testimony to Jewish compunction.

Do not mistake yourself. I am for sincere repentance for the wrong done. I am very much in favor of the true biblical notion of metanoia, which calls for turning away from past patterns of life to adopting new and creative ones in response to the demands of the Gospel. But on the whole, what I observe among devout Catholics is a predilection for pain and punishment instead of a reliance on growth in the life of grace.

This is evident in many practical ways because my observation is that Catholics practice what they believe. They believe much more in Ash Wednesday and Good Friday than in Ascension Thursday or All Saints Day. The result of years and years of such spirituality is that the holidays of obligation (except Christmas) are meaningless now. Some American bishops have recognized this and have tried to put on the agenda of their annual assembly a discussion on the subject of the elimination of holidays. So far, they have failed due to lack of interest from clergy and laity and resistance to change from an even larger number of Catholics. But overall, the holidays are dead. Our churches are empty on those days compared to Sunday attendance.

While I’m not a big fan of the holidays, I can still see that celebrating some of them is much more theologically sound than Catholic preoccupation with Lent. Surely the annual observance of All Saints Day, for example, which testifies to the fruits of redemption blossoming in some more famous members of the universal Church, is a holy and wholesome thing to do. But such celebrations, at least in the American church, have been overshadowed by a rigorous tradition of penance and concern for the passion of the Lord.

Such celebrations, at least in the American Church, have been overshadowed by a rigorous tradition of penance and concern for the passion of the Lord.

Try, if you will, to arrange for a Catholic school to hold lessons on Good Friday. The ensuing outcry will be louder than the biblical cry of widows and orphans for justice. But the same schools will give courses, without scruple, on All Saints, the Immaculate Conception or the Ascension. Catholics believe in what happened on Good Friday although it was never a “holiday of obligation”. They do not believe in the effects of the redemption proclaimed by the church on All Saints’ Day, the Immaculate Conception or the Ascension. Their absence from the pews on those days testifies to their disbelief.

Lent must go. This reflects poor theology for the 21st century. It was poor theology for the previous 20 centuries. Even the Church, in the depths of her being, has always been aware of this, reflected, as she has been, for centuries, in the Laetare (Rejoice) Sunday in full Lent. The church could never quite get away from the joy of the resurrection, even in the midst of its thumping chest. And the strictest days of penitential fasting and abstinence of the past, frequent as they were, could never fall on Sundays. Sunday has always been the exception because the church could not escape its overflowing joy at the thought of what had happened on that first day of the week centuries ago, the bright dawn of the Resurrection, the beginning of a new era, an age of grace and growth.

In an Easter sermon some 15 centuries ago, Saint Augustine condensed the point well: “The pages believe in the death of Jesus, the Christians in his resurrection. It is time for our liturgical life to emphasize the Christianity plastered upon us and minimize the paganism deep within us. Perhaps then we would begin to become Christians through and through.

Comments are closed.