My Girls' Group meets tomorrow night. Five of us (I'm mentally counting, one, two three...yeah five of us) meet twice a month to discuss issues of spiritual reflection. We generally take time to check in with one another - on the ordinary aspects of our lives, as well as our connection with our own spirituality. And, those of us who aren't actively trying to get pregnant drink too much wine, and we all eat too many cookies. We're all affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist church, and it seems just perfect that our body and blood of Christ is cheap Trader Joe's red table wine and Pepperidge Farms cookies.
On the occasion of Fat Tuesday, BMG and I were reflecting on the topic of Lent. What is the purpose of giving up a vice for 40 days and 40 nights? According to a link from the Catholic Education Resource Center, provided by Bowl of Cheese.com, the purpose of deprivation is to give oneself time to reflect on the liturgy of the church and to devote more time to prayer.
So giving up smoking for 40 days is like fasting for Hindus? Only, Catholics and Protestants can't bring themselves to actually give up food, so they give up buying new shoes for a month or drinking top shelf whiskey. How close to god does that bring you? When I was a child, I thought Lent was like an extra shot at a New Year's Resolution - the point was to see if you could actually give something up that you thought was important to you.
Ahhh. Now this is interesting.
Perhaps one of the more secular interpretations of Lent is that it provides the practitioner with the opportunity practice letting go of things that are important to me. Like Jesus (who they know they are about to lose to death). But the Easter story is one of faith and redemption. In fact, the message is that one is NOT supposed to let go. Those who let go of their belief in Jesus as "the messiah" were considered the traitors. I heard a piece on NPR tonight by a Jesuit priest who was reminding listeners that Easter is at its heart a celebration - of joy, of miracles, of faith. Frederica Matthewes-Green writes "(For the early church), repentance was the wellspring of joy and healing. As Jesus taught, the one who knows she has been forgiven much knows she is loved much, and can pour out love in return."
So I ask again, what is this tradition of giving things up for 40 days before Easter all about? Do we have to give up things we care about (or merely enjoy) in order to come to a place of appreciating them? Do we have to punish ourselves before we can celebrate? How does deprivation lead to forgiveness? Are we supposed to acknowledge and be reminded of our sins for 40 days in order to best appreciation the forgiveness afforded by god when he "takes his only begotten son" yada yada?
I think the Jews do this a little better, with their observation of Yom Kippur. You spend 24-hours fasting, reflecting on all the ways you screwed up during the year, asking for forgiveness, and promising to try and do better. And, you do it in the community of other congregants at your synagogue - so you are all acknowledging your fallibility together. Judaism also calls for the forgiveness of others during this period, which includes to resolution (or dissolution) of all feuds. Some people also choose to partake of a ceremonious casting of their sins into the water, called tashlikh. I love this ceremony, because of the symbolism of cleaning the slate. I head to a body of water with old bread or crackers. I find a spot with nice, clear access, and crouch down. As I toss the bread into the water, I name it. "Anger at my mother," "Irritation with stupid people driving their cars," "Getting a double feature for free at the movies." Then, I watch each piece of bread drift away, or become loaded down with water and sinking, or being snatched up by a hungry duck or sea gull. It is satisfying.
I still don't quite get Lent - or Easter for that matter. What I do know is that I'm going to make these questions the centerpiece of the Girls' Group discussion tomorrow night, when I ask the question, "Even if you aren't a believer in the resurrection or Jesus as messiah, what spiritual good - personal good - comes from cleansing oneself of one's vices? For an individual, a family, or a community?"