There are some who still cannot, or simply refuse, to accept the paradox of folly and glory that belongs to our Redemption through the Cross of Christ.
Today at work, a co-worker popped into our office to indulge, as he always does, in a salty snack we keep in a cookie jar for visitors such as himself. I was headed down the hallway at the same time as he, and commented that I can't have those fun snacks anymore. I wasn't lamenting, but rather recognizing the joy in choosing something greater than a pleasure of the flesh. (And believe me, I LOVE those salty snacks, which is why I'm giving them up for lent, and yes, it IS already a struggle!). I thought nothing of my comments for, we are all Catholics and we are all quite familiar and often joke about our chosen lenten penances.
The co-worker surprised me. He accused me (yes, that's the right word), ACCUSED me of "taking a negative attitude." I disagreed and explained that deprivation is a very important part of the theology of Lent. He insisted that it was "negative" and asked why I don't take up another practice (and here he surprised me) such as praying the Rosary every day, making it "positive"?
I explained that first of all, I ALREADY pray the Rosary every day, and secondly, that depriving ourselves of something is positive, for it enables a place for Christ to enter into our own deprivation and fulfill it in a new way.
And he walked away saying that he deprives himself of leisure time by praying the Rosary...yet somehow didn't seem to understand that my deprivation of salty foods is the same thing. While he condemned my choice of phrase and focus, that of deprivation, he eventually admitted to doing the same thing in another way!
I understand that he's trying to be "positive" as a lot of modern "Catholic" theology exhorts one to be, and yes, I agree with the need to be positive, but with a caveat: we can't forget the price of our ability to be positive!
This gets to the heart of Lent, and the heart of misunderstanding that is often perpetuated during this very holy season. While I agree it is important to maintain a joyful focus, we cannot forget the price in blood that paid for our salvation, and I advance that it is IMPORTANT to recall the suffering and death of our Lord, to enter into it as fully as possible so that we can more fully live out His life here on earth!
There are many ways to explain why we choose to give up something during Lent, so perhaps it's best to point out the historicity of the season as a starting point.
We begin Lent with a Gospel reading from Luke 4: 1-13, about the baptism of Jesus and His venture into the desert/wilderness to face temptation. We enter this Gospel having already begun this season, having already taken stock of our own need to join Our Lord in this time of prayer and penance and sacrifice in preparation for what God has to offer us in 40 days.
During Lent, we are invited into the same deprivation faced by Jesus. Because we can't all flee our lives and populate the desert as hermits, we are instead called to fast, pray, and give alms. In our fasting, we must fast from some legitimate good that is in our lives (or if it has become sinful, we are called to recognize that and seek to eradicate it). We are called to allow that deprivation to create a "hollow" place within us where Our Lord can enter the rot of our souls and purify it, becoming united to us through out weaknesses. We are called to in turn, take that deprivation and turn it into a benefit for someone else, through time, through money saved, or through our own God-given abilities, to benefit and build the Kingdom of God.
If we truly love God, we will fruitfully love others and enable the ongoing live of the Church and the spread of Christianity. None of this can be done without giving fully of ourselves in true charity, which at its heart requires us to be deprived of our worldly attachments in some way.
To say we are "giving something up" may seem in the parlance of the "Positive Thinker" cult to be "negative", but in reality, it is only a way to make room for something far greater!
Lent helps us to get rid of the clutter that serves only as a barrier to Christ in order to let Him in to order our lives more perfectly. It helps us, each year, to come closer and closer to Him, purifying ourselves to better receive Him, to conform to Him...and to better take Him into the world that so desperately needs Jesus and the message of the Gospel!
In my co-worker today, in our brief conversation, I recognized a ghost of the heresy of the early days that denied the triumph of the Cross, that sought to turn Jesus into a mere apparition, the Cross into a Broadway play even before Broadway was known. In some of the early heresies, Christ was made into anything other than what He really was, for when we look upon the reality of God become Man, the God we killed and abandoned upon the Gibbet, the blood-stained Gibbet that both condemns and elevates us, well....it's not an easy reality. It's much easier to deny Truth than to approach and embrace it.
It's much easier to seek any explanation OTHER than the real one, especially if the reality is folly to the comfortable beliefs of the majority of the world around us that refuses to believe.
We enter into Lent to become abandoned ourselves in the face of the world that ridicules our ashes, our practices, and our deprivations, exhorting us to "be positive!" even as we seek to enter into and become united not just with the shadow, but with the reality of the Cross itself! We seek to abandon ourselves to God in a world that seeks to control us by demanding we "take control!" only in accordance with their arbitrary preferences. We seek abandonment in a world that becomes more and more totalitarian, and less and less tolerant to any religion that professes the Cross of Christ.
We should not expect the world to understand, but rather to offer our sufferings and encounters for the salvation of souls...including our own. When we are harshly judged, we must recall those times that we have harshly judged others, and seek absolution for ourselves while we in turn remember that we must live heroic forgiveness.
That's what I said: Heroic Forgiveness.
What I find hardest to bear in this season isn't the denial and the ridicule of secularists and non-Catholics, but the outright denial and in-your-face hostility of those who claim the Catholic Faith. I expect hostility from the world, and solidarity in my closest brothers and sisters. Rather, I tend to experience the opposite, for the Catholic world has been so infected with the heresies of the ages that those who seek to embrace the Cross are denounced, called out as "antiquated" and directed to let go of "irrelevance".
I do not want to live in a world where the Cross is irrelevant. I do not want to embrace a world that denies the necessity of salvation while claiming the more attractive trappings for the purpose of personal self-seeking comfort.
And yet..it is just such a world that we are all called to embrace, for it is the same world into which God was born and redeemed through His Cross and Resurrection.
As I recall, Our Lord did not suffer mere comfort in serving to pay the Divine Justice through His Mercy for the sake of our eternal Redemption.
As I recall, the deprivations of Christ far surpassed any deprivations we might suffer as mere humans.
As I recall, there was nothing "fun" or "entertaining" but for the most bloodthirsty and evil in the Passion and Crucifixion of Our Lord.
As I recall, Jesus began the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass at the Last Supper where He instituted the Priesthood in the formal Ordination of the Apostles, and offered the first Homily in union with His Eternal Sacrifice as He died on the Cross.
In light of the holiness and solemnity of the Passion of Christ, the price paid for our Redemption, I don't see how my giving up salty foods or a few other things can be seen as a "negative" approach to Lent. Rather, I see it as being quite insufficient and am quite embarrassed at my own meager offering. What I give up, I give up with a sense of deprivation, but also in joy at the freedom to do so, looking towards the Joy of the Resurrection, for I do not see these present sufferings as anything other than the grace of God which allows me to participate more deeply into to the most important moment of human history.
If that is folly, then condemn me for my folly, for I'd rather be a Fool in the eyes of the world than Irrelevant in the eyes of God. Give me my deprivations, for they are greater gifts than the emptiness of the false happiness of the world. And give me this ungrateful and hostile world to embrace, for if that is what Christ did...so must we all who profess to follow Him.