If you happened to be at one of the Masses I celebrated on Sunday you heard me say that, because we don’t have a drive-through window at All Saints, ashes would be distributed only during Masses on Ash Wednesday. I was making a joke. Evidently, however, not everyone thinks that idea is comical. According to the newspaper, there is a church somewhere in the Clearwater area that is offering drive-through ashes this morning.
The church with the drive-through isn’t Catholic; it’s another brand. If I thought that one of those folks had been at Mass this past Sunday, and heard my announcement, I might be tempted to take credit for the idea, and ask for a percentage of the drive-through collection.
Lent is a convenient opportunity to accomplish some good things for ourselves. If you’re carrying a few extra pounds, then the fasting during Lent might help you lose some weight. If you have a bad habit that you want to cease, then the penance done during Lent might help you make a positive change in your life. If you’re feeling a little guilty about living a comfortable life, then the almsgiving of Lent might help you assuage your guilt. If you need a little ego boost, then Lent can offer an opportunity to feel heroic about making sacrifices.
These kinds of perspectives make the drive-through distribution of ashes an appropriate convenience for busy people. There is so much to be accomplished in a day, a quick smudge of ashes without the lengthy process of public prayer, makes a lot of sense for the over-stressed individual who wants some spirituality, but on a convenient schedule. I would suggest, however, that all of this above is destructive of faith.
Using Lent as a means to lose weight, break a bad habit or feel better about oneself turns Lent (and God), into nothing more than another consumer product. Sadly, this is the state of religion today in this country. Religion is used as a self-help program to address all of our real and imagined personal problems. The tragedy of this perspective is that when our religious practice is aimed at self-improvement or relief from problems, it isn’t aimed at God. In fact, when we use a religious practice, such as Lent, as means to a personal goal, we have made ourselves into god. The goal of all religion is to connect to the divine; when religion is done for our personal benefit, it is an indication that we have made ourselves the divine object of our worship.
One of the reasons that participation in traditional religion is declining in this country is that traditional religion still maintains as a goal to connect with the One, True God. This goal is not helpful for consumers whose god is themselves. Here is a little bit of old-fashioned Catholic guilt for you at the beginning of your Lenten journey: if you lament the decline in church attendance in this country, but look at Lent as an opportunity to improve your life, you might be part of the problem you lament. If you’re here to get your ashes, and go, and you don’t want to be bothered with the other people who are starting Lent today, Lent isn’t going to do any good for you. If you have a plan to have a much-improved life by the end of Lent, you won’t get that. If you are your primary concern today, you are your own god.
Let me offer an alternative to consumer religion. Instead of seeing Lent as the promise of a personal benefit for you, try to see Lent as a communal journey of the whole Church. Instead of seeing religious practice as a commodity to be gained or purchased or accumulated, try to see religion as a reference to something beyond yourself and your personal wants, needs and concerns. Instead of seeing Lent as an excuse to improve your life, try to see God as more than a provider of consumer products.
Many years ago a friend of mine was telling me about the many troubles he was having in his life. He said he had just experienced a difficult end to a relationship, he had lost a job and was feeling very unloved and unfulfilled. I remarked to him that all of his troubles and tragic experiences had something in common; they all began with the same letter. He looked confused. I said, “All of your complaints begin with the letter “I.”
The problems that we try to solve with religion, the worries that we bring to church and the entitlements that we project onto God are entirely about ourselves. This disordered focus means that God is ignored completely or, at best, treated like a provider of consumer commodities. All religious practices, and Lent in particular, have the primary goal of getting us beyond ourselves. It is impossible to encounter God, or even other people, as long as we are focused on ourselves. Religion that is self-referential is, by definition, not focused on God. If you’ve made Lent a season for your wants or worries, it won’t really be Lent for you.
Lent is a call from God for all of us together as Church to let go of the common element to all of our problems: us. If you were hoping to be a different person by the end of Lent, you won’t be. I suggest that you set aside all the things you think you deserve, and choose to make your religious practice what it is intended to be: your act of giving God what God deserves. That is the path of repentance that is described in the Scriptures.
In today’s first reading God says, “return to me with your whole heart.” (Joel 2:12) Returning to God means leaving behind ourselves. The choice is yours: at the end of Lent you can find yourself in your own presence, or in God’s.