Far from the television cameras, the movie stars and the crowds of jet-setting international tourists which feature so prominently in Rio de Janeiro’s carnival to start the Lenten season, neighbourhood associations known as “bloco” stage their own carnival celebrations in a poor neighbourhood near downtown Sao Paulo. Photo by Michael Swan.

The opportunity presented by Lent

  • March 2, 2014

Perhaps we haven’t considered Lent in terms of opportunity. Most of us picture opportunity knocking in the form of a new job, a surefire investment, a vacation, an adventure. Fasting, penance, charity, prayer are given to us as duties, obligations, tasks.

Merely accepting an obligation imposed on us doesn’t even qualify as a religious act, let alone true devotion. Ever since Adam and Eve’s decision in the Garden of Eden, real religion has been about the exercise of free will. You can do what’s expected this Lent, fulfilling every letter of liturgical and canon law, but it means nothing if your heart’s not in it.

Which is why Lent really is an opportunity — an opportunity to answer Jesus’ invitation to “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened.” For everyone who has ever wished their prayers were richer and deeper, wished they were more generous, wished they could live for something more and better than their next meal and a comfortable bed, Lent is their chance.
Opportunities, however, are only as good as our preparation. We all have an opportunity to go to the Olympics. We just won’t get there by eating potato chips and watching TV. So how do we prepare to pray, give and fast?

There’s wisdom in carnival — the traditional goodbye-to-meat that we call Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras. In Rio de Janeiro’s Sambadrome it’s been twisted into a competition, infiltrated by organized crime and corrupt politics and commercialized to death. In New Orleans what had once been neighbourhood parties has been taken over by the tourism industry. In our dour, Anglo-Saxon northern climes it has been reduced to a kind of community-boosting, eminently disposable blip on the calendar — a hearty, backslapping breakfast before work indistinguishable from chamber of commerce networking events.

I was once at a neighbourhood carnival parade in Sao Paulo, where poor people in a dangerous district of a dangerous city gathered to defy the grim truths of daily existence. There I saw joy that prepares us for a truly human experience of the pain God shares with His people in the Passion.

Many of the people of this “bloco” (community association) who flooded the streets drinking cheap cachaça and playing samba out of tune live excluded from most of the consumer economy, banished from most of the job market and barred from meaningful education. They live in “favellas” — illegally occupied, crumbling high rises with intermittent, stolen power and water. Fasting is normal on a diet of beans, rice, coffee and bread. Still, come carnival, the neighbourhood supporters of Banda do Candinho are ready to stake their claim to a share of the general happiness.

If we can’t lay a claim to pure, simple, human joy our tears for the crucified Christ are diminished. How genuine or human is our grief if we don’t know joy?

Prayer, almsgiving and fasting — the three pillars of Lent — must be firmly anchored in our joy. There’s no such thing as a grim, unsmiling culture of life; no Christian meaning to suffering or death that is not threatened with resurrection.

When fasting has its intended effect we feel more alive, more aware, more alert. There’s a heightened sense of connection with those who daily don’t have enough to eat, or whose meals are a grim and lonely task, or who struggle to find meaning in what should be life-giving. When prayer is effective it connects us with God. It exercises our capacity for the transcendent. It joins us with all those who share our prayers. When alms are given for the sake of God there is freedom in finding God’s will.

I would argue we are not and cannot be ready for Lent without some kind of joy we have shared with others. We should say goodbye to meat with a light heart — and not alone.

In Brazil it’s a tradition that includes dancing in the street, music and an outdoor party that goes on all night. March in Canada is not so kind. But if the poor of Sao Paulo can dance, how do middle-class Canadians justify perpetual, habitual mourning?

We will not be ready for Lent without a party.

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