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At his feet

First slide

We are now far enough into Lent to remember how hard it is to keep the lofty promises one made to oneself on Ash Wednesday.

This year I will wake an hour earlier, limit my screens to the bare minimum, give up coffee and wine, add an extra holy hour …

And two weeks in, we find ourselves still in bed a half-hour after we planned to be in church, scrolling through Twitter, re-acquainting ourselves with all the old familiar stomping grounds online. This begs the question: For what were those firm Lenten resolutions made?

I think it is common to equate the practice of Lent with an obedient, exacting living of the law. It is as if we take the season of penance, grab it with both hands, and endeavor to live under our own laws of discipline in order to prove to God and ourselves that we are truly sorry for all the ways we have sinned and that we resolve to immediately amend our wayward habits. Then, real life creeps in. We grow weary, all too busy, and not a little afraid. Despair seeps into resolve. And into the fertile soil of despair, doubt takes root and grows like wild mint after an early summer rain.

We wonder if God can possibly love an undisciplined soul who can’t even manage to honor her resolve to avoid coffee for 40 days. He hung on a cross and died a brutal, tortured death, and we are lured away from our gaze on him by the smell of a honey almond latte. What will God say about the lack of discipline? Surely those who are able to keep perfect Lenten disciplines are nearer to his heart than those of us who stumble.

Maybe, but does the stumble remind you of your sins? When you slip up and hit the snooze button, do you call to mind all the ways you’ve fallen short of holiness?

Remember when a woman so mindful of her sins came to Jesus with an alabaster jar full of expensive perfumed oil, fell to his feet, wept in sorrow for her sins, let down her hair, dried his feet and then lavishly anointed his feet with the oil that was her entire life’s savings?

The Pharisee looked upon the wild, undisciplined scene and questioned whether Jesus could really be the prophet he thought because Jesus didn’t seem to recognize what a grievous sinner the woman was. Jesus made it all so simple to understand. He asked the Pharisee who would be more grateful if two men were forgiven their debts: the one who owed a lot or the one who owed a little.

The Pharisee quickly agreed that the one who owed a lot would be commensurately grateful. 

Lent is not an early spring self-improvement super challenge. It’s not a competition (with ourselves or with our neighbor) to see if we can achieve our “personal best” in prayer and fasting and almsgiving. Lent is for the people who are weary and broken and fall at his feet with everything they have stored in one small alabaster jar — and then break that jar to pour it all out for God in what appears to be a reckless act of love.

What if we reframed Lent and looked at it as a call to reckless acts of love? What if we chose as our penances those things which brought us to our knees in a surrender to his grace? What if we simplified the prayer routine and winnowed it all to “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner” and “Thy will be done.” That’s all. Please forgive me, God, and please help me open my soul to your grace so that I can do your will and only your will.

What about the Lenten disciplines? They are the tools that the Holy Spirit can use to draw us into a closer union, a more complete surrender to dependence on God. Go ahead, give up coffee. And every time you are tempted, beg him to show you his grace and give you the strength. Notice it. Then pour yourself into the sacrifice in that moment because you love Jesus. Let yourself be still and quiet enough in each small decision of your Lenten days to notice how he is working there, how he is loving you every time you pour out your oil in love.

Lenten disciplines are not supposed to be undertaken as holy testimonies to our self-discipline. They are best lived when they rely heavily on the grace of God. How best to open ourselves to that kind of grace? Recognize ourselves in the woman wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair. We are far more like her in sin than we would like to acknowledge. Know that we need to repent and be forgiven. The perfect tallying of good works and the careful keeping of spiritual laws can make us self-righteous Pharisees who can’t even recognize our own wretchedness. What a blessing it is to falter, to fail to keep a “perfect Lent,” and to be granted the great gift of recognizing how entirely dependent we are on him. Because there, on the floor, at his feet, we encounter love.

Foss, whose website is takeupandread.org, writes from Northern Virginia.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020