You’re at the halfway mark. Twenty days done, and twenty days left to sweat. So, what, may I ask, did you “give up for Lent?” Most Catholics promise to avoid candy, or wine or movies, but it’s okay if something important appears — like a movie you must see tonight with that special person, or somebody’s birthday that calls for that bottle of Merlot. You can break Lenten promises and not sin; they’re not vows. So, Lent is not all that hard, is it?
Unless you’re a monk and living in a monastery like I did for over 20 years. Monastic Lent meant no meat, no sweets; sometimes no meals worth eating. It meant even more silence than usual and “the usual” was nearly always. But the most painful practice — which was increased during the 40-day Monastic Lent — was “The Discipline.”
No, I don’t mean what you define as discipline. “The Discipline” is the name monks give to that cat o’ nine tails whip they hang on their cell door. Outside of Lent, we’d take the whip two nights a week after Compline was chanted in the chapel and retire to the darkened corridor outside our cell. There, we’d expose our backsides and proceed to whip ourselves vigorously while chanting the Latin Psalm 51 “Miserere Mei” (Have mercy on me, Oh my God,) in unison with our fellow monks. But during Lent, it seemed we did it every night!
Why would anyone deliberately invent Lent? We know the early Fathers of the Church were talking about Lent back in the first and second centuries. There’s no doubt the comparison had already been made with the three scriptural accounts of the 40-day temptation of Jesus (Mk.1:12, etc.) and the Christians were serious about trying to imitate the Passion narrative of Holy Week. However, they also wanted to imitate the wild and happy part, the Resurrection, which they soon made into the beginning (Fat Tuesday) and the end (Easter Sunday) of the 40 days.
You know Fat Tuesday (“fatten up for the lean days coming”) by its French Carnival name, Mardi Gras. You don’t have to be in New Orleans (but it helps) to feel the sheer joy and celebration of the Resurrection. You’ve also seen the scary and evil masks they wear and you’ve probably wondered how these devilish elements crept into this religious holiday. Well, it’s because the central elements of Mardi Gras include satire, mockery and breaking from tradition and propriety. These masks symbolically enable the revelers to participate in social commentary that is often irreverent and even shocking.
What is even more shocking to a few of our readers is my view of the Resurrection. How can I claim to be an Easter-morning-celebrating Christian and yet follow St. Paul’s “Spiritual Resurrection” theory? But I think Paul makes it very clear in his first letter to those doubting Corinthians who have challenged Paul’s statement that Christ has risen, when he explains, “If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.” (1Cor 15.) The resurrection of Jesus was a spiritual one, not a physical one. “So,” asks Paul, “what’s your problem?”
But many Christians have a big problem with the Resurrection and Paul’s sometimes garbled explanations don’t help. After all, the essentials of our religion, like all religions, are coated in myth, magic and mystery, and I think all Christians need to deal with these realities. It would help also, I think, to read at least one of the books written by John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, Bishop John Spong, Karen Armstrong, R. Kirby Godsey or Bart Ehrman. These authors can read the original Greek and Aramaic, and cut through the “religiously perfect jargon” that tries to pass for “Christian-speak,” and they can help you find the true, spiritual message of Jesus.
Or, of course, you can always read the opposite explanations in some of the letters to the editors and nearly all the vicious comments beneath our online columns.
Bill Cummings’ latest book “Oh My God” can be purchased on amazon.com.