Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Be not a squirrel

by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register

(From the March 16, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)

Father Michael Savelesky Paraphrasing the late Carl Sagan, children have billions and billions of ways of storing up candy. It seems that on every and any occasion children manifest an uncanny knack for squirreling away their little hoard. Candy bulges from pockets, clutters dresser tops, and protrudes from delighted cheeks.

Conscious of dental bills and health questions, parents make valiant attempts to control this deluge of sweetness. Candy remains a favorite nevertheless and is sought after with the same eagerness with which our great-grandparents stampeded the local grocery store after school.

Small wonder, then, that for a good number of us candy and Lent grew up together. Since Lent was supposed to be a time for suffering and sacrifice, what could be more painful for a child than to give up candy!

Of course, the child theologian knew that Sundays were not days of sacrifice. So weekdays were spent squirreling away the hoard of sweetness, awaiting the Day of the Lord, when sweetness would come to life once again! Moreover, once the tortuous time of Lent had passed, we could go back to our guiltless search for sweets. Much to our delight, nothing had changed — there was still candy galore to be sought out and devoured.

Some of us became rather skillful at saving candy during Lent. (I used to treat the entire neighborhood on Sunday afternoons!) Unfortunately, some of us still practice the skill as adults. Our delights have changed to cigarettes, alcohol, desserts, television, movies, or dancing, but the practice remains fundamentally the same. Giving up these things or activities during Lent gives us a sense of doing something sacrificial.

This kind of practice does make us conscious of the Lenten season, but I wonder how much it opens us up to the transforming power of God’s presence. Sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice, or giving up something just for the sake of “doing something for Lent” manifests a less-than-healthy spirituality.

As children we did not know better. Our spiritual formation was short-sighted and perhaps even a little ill-founded. We had not yet learned that God is not impressed with our annual displays of self-discipline or skills at squirrel-like hoarding.

As adults we can do better for Lent. We certainly can encourage our children to do better. Enlightened by the Gospel, we have no excuse for remaining stuck in practices which fall short of the new life to which God calls us in a unique way during Lent.

Lent is but six weeks out of the rest of any given year in our life. Penance and sacrifice are always to be characteristics of our spirituality, but Lent gives us an opportunity to concentrate on them not for their own sake, but to enable God to transform us more clearly into a people of living faith.

For the Christian, sacrifice is a matter of identifying with the sacrifice of Jesus. Although he died a very painful death in crucifixion, the essence of his sacrifice was the offering of himself to the will of the One whom he addressed as “Father” in prayer. Jesus’ faithfulness led to the cross; his sacrifice of self led to that kind of dying in which true life is found. Hence, Christian sacrifice is a way of living.

Jesus is the model of our Lenten sacrifice. Sacrifice in imitation of Jesus cannot be equated with doing things or denying activities which have little or nothing to do with our new life in Christ. Our Lenten sacrifices must find their meaning in becoming more like Jesus in his gift of self. These kinds of Lenten penances are more difficult to identify — and they are far more difficult to practice — but they are the kind of sacrifice which allow God to transform us and bring us new life.

It is easy to save candy during Lent, for example, but it is far more life-producing to spend quality time with the family or relatives who have been neglected. It is easy to give up desserts, but new life is more readily found in visiting the sick or shut-ins of the parish. We may conquer the nicotine habit, but improved spiritual health is found in devoting more time to prayer. It may sooth our conscience to give up dancing for Lent, but God’s face is more readily encountered in taking time to introduce ourselves and meet people before and after Mass on Sunday.

Is not this shift in perspective the point Jesus was trying to make in the Gospel when he challenged the Pharisees (who were experts in pious practices) to go and learn the meaning of the phrase, “It is mercy I want and not sacrifice.”

God does not want our candy for Lent. God wants us. And, if God wants us for Lent, the Lord wants us always.

(Father Savelesky is pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane. His book, Catholics Believe, is available from Harcourt Religion Publishers.) (Download an order form in pdf format to print)

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