Wednesday, March 4, 2015
Lent to love: Valentine to Va(Wow)-lent-time!
We have already entered into another blessed lent looking at ourselves and trying to figure out where we stand. This initiative of the UTC worship committee is indeed a good one as it gives a time for a theological community like ours to pray for each other and pray for ourselves. There is sometimes a mis-notion that theologians and pastors need no prayers. We all need prayers and we all need to know that we are not perfect and that lent is a time to work on our faults and accept others with their faults because in accepting others we are accepting ourselves!
As an introduction we are looking at traditions which continue to live in our midst but will also look at how traditions have evolved and why this is an important aspect of tradition itself. Valentine’s day came with no preplanned bang before the start of lent in some of the Christian denominations. So much that it was an emotional drain on youngsters to start off lent because they were wasted even before the start of lent.
But the Valentine’s day tradition offers us a link to lent and a reason to lent as well. This we understand from the story behind Valentine’s day. The Emperor issues an edict that soliders should preferably not marry as this would make them weak soldiers and if at all they could have several women so that they would love none. Valentine took the risk of marrying couples in love and thereby also gave them the opportunity to be committed to one another. The Emperor jails Valentine and he heals Julia, the daughter of the jailor Asterius. Before his execution he writes a letter to her and signs off as Your Valentine. Interestingly the heart, and the love have been taken over by a commercial frenzy on February 14 and the sacrifice and real purpose of Valentine have been left behind. Perhaps it will serve us well to pick up the crumbs and understand lent through that.
Va-lent-time is an exclamation that this is something we do by our own will and that this is something we do diversely. Every Christian tradition has some form of lent and that cannot be discounted in any way. Every Christian tradition also understands that lent has several things to offer them and through diet, manner, character and life restrictions each one tries by himself or herself to lent and live. The Orthodox (Syrian, Oriental and other) churches fast, lent and give alms and pray that lent without practice of alms giving and helping the poor is no lent at all. The idea is not to be self righteous though it is misconstrued that lent makes one self righteous. On the other hand lent makes one humble, self critical and analytical. Food restrictions are to tone down desire on several levels as prayer for the soul over food for the body takes center stage.
This lent in UTC we are trying to figure out sins which we are committing and which we have to stop doing by fasting and praying. They are sins against humanity and community. This is a perfect time to tell ourselves that we are sinning and we need help to stop. It is not a lent to rectify and renew others but a lent to change and offer a leash of life to oneself. St. John Chrysostom says that “It is folly to abstain all day long from food, but fail to abstain from sin and selfishness.” Lent to love is to love ourselves to the point of saving ourselves to offer food and nourishment to others.
Churches should become the best place one wants to go to. Pastors should be the first person someone wants to meet at a difficult time. Lent can help for attaining this goal. But the biggest corruption of lent has been to think that lent makes us better than someone else and our lent is the best and most perfect lent. If we start thinking like that our lent has been wasted. Stop abusing lent and start loving it.
Get dirty this lent
Undergoing lent and the thoughts that we have while doing it are the reverse of what we have on mind. St. Luke 5:12-16 talks of the person with leprosy who asks Jesus to make him clean. We usually try to make ourselves clean during lent. Our practice of lent is to have diet restrictions, prayers and a life style to suggest that we are clean by ourselves and cleaner than others. There is an addiction towards being clean and more so to be cleaner than others. But what does Jesus do? What was he supposed to do? He was in all probability expected to ignore the person with leprosy because Jesus was clean while the leper was perceived as un clean.
But the clean Jesus does an interesting thing by stretching out his hand and touching the unclean person. This is a true model for Lenten practice. If we cannot offer cleanness to others our cleanness becomes suspect. The entire essence of purity, cleanness and holiness somehow prevents us from reaching out to those who are branded as impure and un clean. This important observation of reality has to be part of our Lenten experience. Jesus gets dirty and also reflects a certain ughhh from people to suggest that he did something which was not acceptable. We have it as part of our sermons but such dirty acts of faith which are actually good acts of faith are left in the script and don’t go to the field.
The eeeggh and uuuggghhh have to be part of our process of getting mud on our hands during lent so that we are prepared for real ministry. Identifying inward beauty is something we haven’t been able to grasp despite knowing fully well that our spiritual guidance suggests us that. Love cannot be limited to what we are taught is beautiful. Love has to be acts of love like Jesus showed. It did not matter to Jesus how the person looked anymore. Can lent bring about such love? Can we lent ourselves so that love indeed becomes blind as they say it?
Fasting against corrupt practices
Lent is a protest. When everything is accepted and goes a certain way it is to say that I don’t want to be part of a uniform way of thinking as I feel this could be disruptive of the gospel. Protest is not a bad word. Perhaps the images in our mind of protests which have become violent make us identify the word protest with something bad. Protest is to say that there is another way of doing things and we would like you to try it out. St. Mark 2:1-12 contains the story of a unique protest. Four people bringing a paralyzed man discover that they cannot bring the man to Jesus because of the crowd and so they find a unique way of letting him to Jesus. Jesus is impressed and helps the man. There has to be a discernment to do good whenever possible. Lent is a time when we enable ourselves to able others.
We usually talk a lot about lent and sometimes it even sounds like we are doing it because someone is forcing us to. But there are others who are not forced by anyone and yet commit to lenting their own lives. Irom Sharmila is one such courageous woman who has fasted for 15 years of her life starting from November 4, 2000. When many of us complain and undergo the lent experience because it is a part of our traditions, Sharmila has made a tradition out of her fast against unjust structures. Her fast is not for her self glory and purification. It is for the repealing of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in Manipur. Her usual practice of fasting once a week in her usual life turned into a lifetime fast because she protested against the killing of innocent people from her state. What do we call her fast? Is our fasting and are our lents close to the deep spirituality of Irom Sharmila’s fast where she has made herself into a vegetable for the sake of others?
The people carrying the paralytic get a deep sense of spirituality to break the line and do something so that justice may be gained. This then becomes a traditional endeavor for us to follow. Romans 12:2 says “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed for the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern, what is the will of God, what is good, acceptable and perfect. Irom Sharmila has proved that love goes beyond love of the self into uncertain and unknown territory. The people carrying the paralytic where going through unknown territory and yet love makes them do something so crazy that even they had no logical explanation for it. Can we lent that we become crazy enough to follow Christ through unknown ways?
Depriving ourselves of unjustifiable cravings
St. Luke 6:31 says “Do to others as you would have others to do to you.” Deprivation is a part and parcel of traditional lent. But deprivation is not an act of weakness but an act of strength where we give up something so that those who are deprived may have it. We crave for a lot of things but many a time these cravings are not justified. They are what we take from others and have. Can we take from others and justify that? We obviously can’t and lent becomes a time when we can say that I would like to deprive myself of these unjustifiable cravings which deprive someone else of what is their share.
Lent becomes something to undertake, the stronger you are. This could be a reason why children, elderly folk and even nursing mothers are allowed to skip lent in some traditions. Lent is something you do in your strength and not in your weakness. It is what we give away and not what we take away. If we have received out of lent it is not completely justified. If on the other hand we have given away out of lent, it is justified. It goes along with the song “The weak say I am strong and the strong say I am weak.”
Lent in this sense is not a sadistic effort at saying we have done something great but a spiritual effort in saying that we have tried to become what God wants us to be and this is not sacrifice but the way God wants it to be. 1 John 4:8 says “Whoever does not love, does not know God, because God is love.” How clear a verse this is, how truthful an advise this is?
Lent becomes our natural action towards loving others, caring for others and ensuring God’s justice to be done. It is our deep spiritual engagement with God by loving others and letting them know that we are depriving ourselves of unjustifiable cravings so that they may have and have abundantly. We are invited to love and love beyond anything we know. Amen.
(Preached yesterday in the UTC Ziegenbalg chapel, Bangalore for the first Lenten Lantern service.)