Lent: A Detox of the Soul
Purification, ritual cleansing and sacrifice are not words that we often hear used by Catholics these days.
But, even if the words are not used, they are important concepts in our religious tradition and they come into their own during the period of Lent.
Large parts of the Hebrew Scripture (our Old Testament) contain detailed rules about acts of purification. And the feast of the Presentation—which we were all reminded of a few weeks ago since it was celebrated on a Sunday—showed us that the Holy Family, as good Jews, were completely part of this tradition.
Remember the older name for the date is the feast of the Purification when both the newborn Jesus and his mother have to present themselves at the Temple to be purified.
The sacrifice is clearly prescribed (two turtle doves or a pair of young pigeons) and we know that the offering of animals was a common part of Temple worship.
Even if we are removed from animal sacrifices, the idea of presenting ourselves before God to be purified is not so foreign. After all, infant baptism continues the tradition of a newborn being presented before the community and before God, and he or she is then purified through the rite of exorcism.
And it was not that long ago that women who had given birth had to be “churched” before they re-entered the praying community.
The term purification is not one we tend to use. But we do have modern-sounding terms that echo a similar idea: the obsession with dieting continues, people talk casually about being on a rehab or detox, and one of the latest fads is decluttering.
What these have in common with ritual purification is a recognition that something is not quite right in our lives and that we need to put in some effort to be “right with ourselves” and (for religious people) “right with God”.
There is still sacrifice involved. If you had a Dry-January, you will know that keeping off alcohol took some effort; if you are banting, then every piece of warm ciabatta is a reminder of the sacrifices you are making; if you have decluttered your wardrobe you know how hard it was to give up that precious pair of shoes, even if you have not worn them for five years.
I give these slightly superficial examples because they also make the point that sometimes our act of purification has an ulterior motive: I will put in the sacrifice but I hope to end up with fewer hangovers, or a better body for the beach, or space in my closet for yet more shoes!
There is a bit of a tradition of such ulterior motives in some old-school Catholic practices: we can be tempted by a transactional relationship with God.
After all, if saying a decade of the rosary means that God will bless me, then doesn’t saying ten decades of the rosary mean that God will bless me ten times more?
We can’t earn our way to salvation but sometimes we behave as if we can. And the Jewish people fell into the same trap.
That is why the prophet Micah warned them—and warns us—about how we add up our sacrifices.
“With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God?
“Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
“No, this is what the LORD requires of you: to act justly, to love with mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:6-7a, 8b).
So, as we plan our Lenten practices, let Micah remind us that it does not matter how many thousands of rams we sacrifice—or how many hundreds of chocolate bars.
We will be judged instead on how we live our lives: do we act justly, do we love with mercy, do we walk humbly with our God?
Those are certainly words that we would associate with the late Archbishop Hurley and I hope that they also form the ethos of how we work at the Denis Hurley Centre to continue his legacy.
In our case, our offering is not of thousands of rams: instead it is the 100000 meals that we serve to the homeless each year; or the 30000 poor patients whom we see in our clinic each year.
And the sacrifices are the sacrifices of the staff who always go beyond the call of duty; the volunteers who give up their time (R600000 worth of volunteering hours in our kitchen since we opened five years ago); and the people who donate goods and money to support our work.
But again, none of this counts in the eyes of God if it is not done in a way that shows our commitment to act justly, to love with mercy, and to walk humbly.
I think it is fair to say that there is some ritual cleansing that takes place in the giving of time or money. For all of us, much of our time is not spent in ways that reflect justice or mercy or humility; that much of our money is not spent in ways that follow the precepts of Micah.
By giving some of my money or some of my time, I can purify what the Lord has given me by giving it back to the Lord.
When the offertory is brought up in church on a Sunday, it is not just our gifts that are being offered but our whole selves.
And if we hold back, the Lord knows: the Jewish family that could afford the two turtle doves but instead cheated with the pair of pigeons (the offering of the poor) were not making a “right offering” before the Lord.
So as you prepare for Lent, can I suggest a couple of things to consider:
What is it that I am offering to the Lord, and, if I can afford two turtle doves, do I really think I will get away with a pair of pigeons?
How am I offering my sacrifice to the Lord: am I doing it in a way that shows justice and mercy and humility?
And to the extent that my life has been lacking in justice and mercy and humility since last Lent, the more this period gives me an opportunity to put myself right with God.