The game of Lent

Friday, March 08, 2019 - Updated: 12:26 pm

By David Mills

A Protestant pastor among my Facebook friends once declared that he didn’t want to hear what anyone else was giving up for Lent. He asked if people had forgotten Matthew 6. That’s the chapter in which Jesus tells people to act as if they weren’t fasting when they were. The pastor clearly felt vexed, and was a little rude about it.

I knew him well enough to know that he aimed this at Catholics. He didn’t like the idea of giving things up for Lent because he felt that meant “works righteousness.” That is, trying to show God how good you are, so he’ll let you into heaven.

You roll your eyes. I rolled my eyes. The Catholic knows what Jesus says. He knows trying to be good won’t get him into heaven. But he might be found telling his friends, or through Facebook telling the world, what he’s giving up.

Quite right, too. It’s part of the church’s culture, it’s what everyone does, and no one’s special for doing it. Try to brag that you’re giving up something for Lent and your Catholic friend’s response will probably be a sarcastic, “Well, aren’t you special.” Jesus said not to try to trick people into thinking you’re being all pious and holy. You’re not being all pious and holy, just doing the same thing as everyone else, so why not share?

It’s like your new diet or your vow to walk two miles a day, or not buying your daily cup of coffee from the shop down the street to give the money to a charity. You want your friends to cheer you on, and hope maybe you’ll encourage them to do the same thing, or work harder at whatever they’re doing. It’s what friends do. They share things like that.

That’s not the best thing about giving things up for Lent. I think the discipline gets at something very good about Catholicism: that even in penance, we can play. We can make even disciplines into a game. We don’t have to be all serious when we’re being all serious.

Yes, we know that the world has a tight hold on us. We know that we like many things way too much. God gets pushed down the list of things we care about. He tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves and we think we’d rather love ourselves first, thank you very much.

The church offers us Lent as a time to try to break ourselves of these addictions so that we can more freely offer ourselves to the Lord. Breaking addictions, even if it’s just to coffee or Netflix, can be really hard. We have to work at it. And we work at it because we love God and want to please him.

But in doing that, we can also make it fun. A little fun, anyway. We can make it a game, something we can keep score playing, even if we’re only playing against ourselves. Can I go without coffee that long? Can I stay off Netflix for 40-some days?

Will I be able to pray one more mystery of the rosary rather than just dropping into bed? Can I give up browsing the web for 10 minutes to read one more chapter of Scripture? How well will I save money that I can give to the poor? Can I get to church every day for at least a few minutes of adoration? Can I beat my personal best?

You may know the story of the third-century martyr St. Lawrence. As he was being roasted to death on an iron grill, he is said to have joked, “Turn me over. I’m done on that side.” Near the end, he told his torturers, “I’m cooked enough now.” He made jokes. He treated even a horrible death as a game.

We don’t know if the martyr really died like that. But the story tells us something about the faith. We can enjoy everything, even the worst things. We can enjoy them because God loves us and through them will bring us to himself. If I were ever being burned, I wouldn’t be St. Lawrence. I would scream bloody murder. But I can imitate him a little, a tiny bit, by making a game of the small disciplines of Lent.

By the way, St. Lawrence: He’s a patron saint of cooks … and comedians.


Mills is working on a book about Catholic dying and death for Sophia Press.

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