To say our family life is complicated is putting it mildly. Six children, with various special needs and extracurriculars, plus a full-time job and part-time school for the adults in the house, and people who insist on clean clothes and regular meals … well, we often feel — as I’m sure you do — that there simply aren’t enough hours in the day.
Yet Lent calls us to move beyond ourselves and our mundane, daily, worldly routines. It calls us to offer more to God than we usually do. When you’re already stretched to the breaking point, what room is there to add more?
Maybe the answer is actually to do less, so that we can make room to love more.
On February 11, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, we heard in the first reading about the dedication of Solomon’s temple, the glorious dwelling place on earth consecrated to God (1 Kings 8:22-23, 27-30). We heard, too, one of many Gospels in which Jesus chides the Pharisees for emphasizing the letter of God’s law over its spirit.
You nullify the word of God in favor of your tradition that you have handed on. (Mark 7:13)
The priest who offered Mass for us that day tied the two themes together beautifully. God does not live in the boxes and tabernacles we create for him, Father emphasized, and He does not come to us because we follow the rules of the game well enough.
Many of our Lenten traditions, if followed without heart and without love, become just that. Rules of the game. Boxes we create to stuff God into, setting Him aside in a convenient place so that we can visit Him when it suits our schedules.
The “rules of the game,” the traditional devotions we observe during Lent and every other liturgical season, are means to an end, not the end in themselves. The buildings and boxes we consecrate to God are places where He allows Himself to be present to us, where He invites us into encounter and not the other way around.
So, too, are the Lenten traditions of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. They are not to-do lists to be checked off or rules of the game to be followed. These traditions that have been handed down to us are an invitation. They lead us to the source of love. They lead us to the arms of the Father.
They lead us to a God who dwells not in boxes, but in mystery. A God who delights in astounding us with the gift of His endless mercy in unexpected places (like among those who eat with unwashed hands, and others who don’t play by the rules, to the consternation of the Pharisees in Mark 7).
What if you started this Lent with the end in mind? What if, instead of playing by the rules and adding more hoops to jump through and more traditions to observe, you created a habit of noticing God’s mystery? Of seeking out and thanking God for unexpected mercies? Of running forward into love with your whole heart?
Maybe He’s not waiting for you at the weekly parish Stations of the Cross, but in the tears of your 7-year-old who had a rough day at school. Maybe He’s not asking you to wash your hands and serve Friday fish dinners to 300 people, but to wash the plates that fed your own family with greater mindfulness and thanks, to wonder and praise Him for the glory of an ordinary dinner under a sound roof.
Fasting, prayer, and almsgiving are good tools to help us achieve the end of Lent: loving God better, and allowing ourselves to be loved by Him better. But they are not the ends themselves. This Lent, don’t focus on adding more tools. Focus on clean-up: getting rid of the things that are keeping you from love.
Maybe this year, it’s not wine or chocolate or Netflix, but obtrusive busyness. Scrupulous rule-following. Hardness of heart.
God doesn’t want your completed 40-day calendar with a check mark in each box. He desires you. Are you ready to be delighted and surprised by Him?
Copyright 2020 Christy Wilkens