Sunday, March 19, 2023

Lenten Loophole

Although a staunch atheist, early 20th century comedian W. C. Fields was known to collect and study books on theology. On one occasion fellow actor Thomas Mitchell came to visit him and caught him reading a Bible. When asked why he was reading it, Fields replied, “Looking for loopholes.” This Lenten season I am thanking God for a loophole in the Lenten custom of “giving up something for Lent.”

Lent is a time when Christians traditionally fast from some food or activity for forty days in remembrance of Jesus’ forty day fast in the wilderness. This Lent I decided to give up desserts. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My wife gave up potato chips. Salty things are her weakness. Mine is sweets. I tell people I am sweet, and she is salty. (Actually it is the other way around!)

I renounced all types of desserts – pies, cake, cookies, puddings, and even ice cream. That decision was made when I was snowbound in New Hampshire, where it is easy to avoid ice cream stands in the winter. They are all closed. Now deep into Lent I find myself in sunny Florida surrounded by open ice cream stands, and they are calling my name. Lucky for me I am a preacher, and I know a loophole. I knew about it when I made the vow.

Lent is the 40 day period that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends with Easter Sunday. But when you count the days on a calendar you will find there are actually 46 days between these holidays. Many Christians do not realize that Lent does not include Sundays. Sundays are considered “feast days” in the midst of the forty “fast days” of Lent. Sundays are oases in the wilderness of Lent. For that reason Sundays are said to be “in Lent” and not “of Lent.” In contrast, in December Sundays are marked “of Advent.”

In other words Sundays do not count when it comes to Lenten fasting. In the same spirit Muslims fast for a month during the holy season of Ramadan, but only during the daylight hours. Every evening they break the fast with the Iftar meal, eaten at sunset. Likewise I can break my fast with ice cream every Sunday while basking in the Florida sun! But only on Sundays. And today is Sunday! Alleluia! (Oh, sorry. That is another rule. You can’t say alleluia between Ash Wednesday and Easter – not even on Sunday.)

The reason I am writing about loopholes is to reveal how deceptive the heart is. There is a story in the Gospel of Mark where the Pharisees were self-righteously condemning Jesus’ disciples for not ritually washing their hands before they ate. Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites for putting religious traditions above God’s commandments. He pointed to the example of a man who found a loophole in the commandment to honor your father and mother. The man learned that if he declared his resources “corban” (devoted to God) he did not have to use them to care for his parents. Jesus said, “Many such things you do.”

Religion is filled with rules and traditions! They are often used to avoid God. In this way Christianity has often fallen into legalism and hypocrisy. The self (or ego) naturally acts in a selfish manner. The self wants what the self wants, and it will find any excuse to get what it wants. There is no way to tame the egoic self, regardless of how many vows we take. Vows only serve to reveal how unruly the self is. The only permanent solution is the death of the self.

That is the meaning of the cross. The mystics say we are to “die before we die.” In this spirit Jesus taught us to deny the self, take up the cross and follow him. But until our physical death we have to put up with this “body of death,” as the apostle Paul calls it. We carry this selfish self around with us like an unruly pet. 

Buddhists call it the monkey mind. I affectionately call it my pet ape. (We are zoologically apes, after all.) Paul called it the flesh or the “old man.” We keep it on a leash, but sometimes it breaks free and runs like a puppy free of its lead. In my case it heads directly for the nearest homemade ice cream stand. “Chocolate chip cone, please!”

I know my pet ape well. I know its limits. It does not like fasts and fights against them. I have learned that I do best during Lent when I observe the feast days in the midst of the fast days. These Sundays “in Lent” are known in Christianity as “little Easters.” These mini-Easters make Lent doable, just like the big Easter makes life livable.  By celebrating “little Easters” I can celebrate Easter Sunday with the joy of knowing I kept my Lenten vow, rather than feel guilty for failing to keep it. In short, be gentle – yet firm – with your pet ape. After all, it is only human. 

1 comment:

Deb Hoffman said...

Thanks for the reminder and for making me smile!