Today is Good Friday, (or Karfreitag, here in Germany) the day on which we remember that the maker and Lord of the Universe and all that is humbled himself to die a death described by scholars and scientists alike as the “cruelest and most disgusting penalty” possible (Cicero, crudelissimum taeterrimumque supplicium, Against Verres, 2.5. 165) all in the hopes that he might one day be reunited with his wayward creation.
There are so many different traditions that intersect on this day: lent is ending, Easter weekend is beginning, in just over a month we will celebrate the ascension. Most importantly, in just two days I’ll be able to drink something that isn’t water again. CAFFEINE!
I’ve been lucky to learn over the years the many joys and disappointments of Lenten discipline. I’ve watched my father, the Christian mentor in my life that I admire most, for many reasons, not least of which is his tremendous wisdom, compassion and discipline, reap unbelievable benefits from these fourty days. When I was younger, he once gave up yelling (which at the time was quite impressive, especially to a daughter who yelled even more than he did) and I don’t think he has ever shouted at any of us, at least within memory, since. I’m not trying to suggest that Lent should be the Christian version of fad dieting. “Give this up now, and you’ll kick that bad habit forever,” is not the sentiment I’m going for. Rather, I watched my father give up something that was hurting his relationship with his family in the interest of improving his relationship with God, and in return, I saw him grow in not only his faith but also in his relationships with others. In short, those 40 days of fasting has brought him great joy well beyond them. He also fasts (from food) regularly, and often on Good Friday, which is always an inspiration to me, who has not been brave enough to try fasting at all. This year, he’s given up listening to sports radio on his commute to work in the mornings (Mike and Mike, anyone?), and has devoted the time to praying with my younger brother while they drive to his school.
I, on the other hand, have given up all beverages but water, and attempted to give up daydreaming as well. (I gave up on giving up daydreaming after about ten days). I chose two disciplines in the first place because last year I attempted to give up complaining (somewhat similar to daydreaming), and wound up giving up nothing and hating myself more and more every time I complained.
Forgoing beverages has not gone well either. Although it was a tremendous blessing for about the first twenty days, it soon became quite difficult and also very frustrating. Instead of praying every time I thought about drinking something other than water, and thanking God for all that he gave up for me, (including 40 days of food, drink and companionship, and then another three of life and the presence of the rest of the trinity) I wound up resenting the tradition of Lent altogether. I whined, I moaned, I faltered. (The flight days, I feel were pretty reasonable, as it’s pretty difficult to travel overseas early in the morning or late at night without some caffeine to keep you going, but the desperation coffees (two of them) and the half bottle of wine I drank last weekend were definitely pushing it).
Lent, for many of us, is a season of attempts (and often failures) to forgo something for nothing. It’s a tradition which is completely meaningless to most western Christians, to the point that most of us have stopped bothering to give anything up at all. (Many are also completely unaware that lent is a part of the Christian calendar, surprising as that may be to a dyed-in-the-wool Anglican like myself). For those of us still striving in the direction of Lenten discipline, stumbling blocks abound. In our quick gratification-oriented lifestyle it’s hard to find any place for denying one’s self; trying to give anything up is not in our nature. Year after year we whine, complain, and falter, ultimately losing sight of why we are fasting in the first place.
And there is a reason for this fasting, however mired in tradition it may be. No great religion exists in this world that fails to recognize the benefits of self-denial. Fasting creates clarity of mind, focus, and for those of us seeking relationships with God and his creation, it fosters empathy and understanding. The most powerful bond of all is shared experience. When Christ humbled himself to share our humanity, he not only took on our sins as the perfect sacrifice, but did so having shared in the burden of living in a fallen world. Though he may not have fallen himself, he was tempted in the same ways we were, lived with pain and loneliness like we do, and also shared in all the simple joys of human life. In short, Jesus shared our human experience completely. Through fasting we have a chance to do the same as he did once again, to deny ourselves, like Christ, and in that denial begin, however slightly, to comprehend the sheer burden of the ultimate act of self-denial. Furthermore, we have the opportunity to suffer as he did; to turn, in our struggle, to God as our sustenance. When we forgo Lent, when we turn in half-hearted efforts, this is what we are giving up.
One of the constant rewards (and beautiful paradoxes) of the Christian faith is that every act of self-denial and God-following offers far greater rewards than we could imagine or ask for. Next year, I think, I’ll try giving up beverages and perhaps even complaining again, knowing full well what joy I seek but still aware of the fact that again I will whine, complain, and falter.