“Rend your hearts, not your garments!” These are the challenging words of the prophet Joel that will greet Christians in churches around the world as they mark the beginning of Lent with the celebration of Ash Wednesday.
Lent, too domesticated over time, is nothing short a radical ancient invitation to reject the emerging dictatorship of superficiality that too often sullies our lives and our communities and to take up a new path that celebrates authentic encounter and encourages our own our conversion and a transformation of the entire human race.
It’s a 40-day journey right to the heart of who we are and who we long to be.
Jesus, the great protagonist of this holy season, shows us that life and redemption aren’t achieved through strength and power but by rejecting privilege and taking up the sufferings of the entire human family. In Jesus, God takes on the fullness of human dysfunction — its disloyalty, its violence, and its terror — to redeem everything. He goes all the way down to bring everyone up. No one is excluded.
As a white heterosexual Christian man it’s a reminder that if I am to authentically honor the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ this holy season, I must acknowledge and reject the privilege afforded me for the sake of taking the path of Jesus Christ.
There’s nothing better for me to do this Lent than to abstain and fast from the sexism that too often colors my life.
Now, let’s set the record straight: there are those who are blatantly sexist and there are those who unintentionally perpetuate micro-acts of sexism in their everyday lives. I’m most certainly a sinner, but on my best days, I’m hopefully more of the latter than the former. And perhaps that’s more pernicious in a country where Donald Trump is President.
His election certainly reminds us that sexism still runs rampant in the world’s longest lasting democratic republic. But to pretend that this problem is spread equally throughout the nation is to ignore the reality that some communities and institutions are the greatest offenders.
As a sinner who does his best every day to follow Jesus Christ, it’s time to admit that the Christian community runs rampant with sexism, and that — yes — I am a big part of it. All men are. That’s the nature of societal sin: no one is truly devoid of responsibility, though some are more responsible than others.
I am responsible, and I ashamed. The words of the Psalmist ring in my ears: “Forgive me, O Lord, for I have sinned!”
Shame, I think, is a necessary part of the faith journey. It is good to feel ashamed of our failures and our sins.
Shame is a first step toward positive transformation. It compels us to do better and to move forward.
This is the reality of our human condition. This is the truth that approaches authentic reconciliation between God and the human race and between each and every person.
Shame isn’t a matter of discrediting one’s self-worth, but of penetrating, to its fullest depth, our heart and to take charge of the mystery of suffering and pain that has tied humanity down since the dawn of creation and each of us since the moment of our conception.
“Rend your hearts, not your garments!” It’s time for me and for the Christian community to reject artificial penance and to open our broken and confused hearts to authentic conversion and to see what it is inside of us that constantly allows us to debase and devalue women.
This is God’s invitation, juxtaposed against so many injuries that wound us and that we use to wound others and the innumerable ways we are tempted to harden our hearts and to give up.
St. John Chrystodom is right: “No act of virtue can be large if it does not also benefit another. Therefore, no matter how you spend the day fasting, no matter how you may sleep on a hard floor, and how you may eat ashes and sigh continuously, if do not do good to others, you do not accomplish anything great.”
My journey towards an authentic Christian feminism isn’t novel. In fact, it’s a rediscovery of the faith as it was in the beginning. Jesus Christ himself was the faith’s first feminist. The great heroes of this holy season are the strong and courageous women who stayed with Jesus through his final hours, while most of his male disciples ran away in fear.
After Jesus’ death, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb to remove his body. On the way there, she encountered a gardener. The gardener revealed himself to be the risen Christ. Jesus told her to tell his disciples what happened. As Mary ran towards the men, she held within her the very reason of the church: to share God’s saving love in Jesus. In that moment, in fact, she was the church.
As it was in the beginning, so it should be now. The details of how this abstention from sexism happens will play out in the minutiae of my daily life, but in taking up the challenge, I’m convinced that I will find new life and eventual freedom from this disease of sexism that is a total affront to my faith.
“What are you giving up for Lent?” It’s a question a lot of people will get these next few days. If you want to change your body, perhaps alcohol and candy is the way to go. But if you want to change your heart, a harder fast is needed. This narrow road is gritty, but it isn’t sterile. It will make room in ourselves and our world to experience a love that can make us whole and set us free.