Yesterday was the official kickoff of the season of lent. To some, it is the kickoff to Mardi Gras. To me, today is a reminder of the mercy and grace of what God has done in my life, saving me from my self-righteous sin of religion.
Being raised in an Italian, Catholic, New York household, I wouldn’t say I had religion rammed down my throat. It was more of a subtle surrounding that became part of my identity. When I became old enough to form my own theology and make my own religious choices, not only did I stick to my Catholic religion and traditions (after a brief agnostic hiatus during my college years) but I was hard-core, old school. Vatican I, not Vatican II.
For those of you that have no idea what I am talking about, allow me to walk you through my sin of religion and self-righteousness.
For Ash Wednesday, I would show up for mass, bring my palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday to be burned for the ashes. I would then get my ashes and show up to work, not just proudly and arrogantly but judgmental. I would ask my other Catholic friends, family and co-workers:
“Did you get your ashes and go to mass today?”
To which most of them replied, “I haven’t had a chance.”
I would in turn respond with a disappointed nodding of my inflated head. I now wonder how that made the other person feel.
Two days later was one of my favorite parts of lent (aside from the Jesus thing of course)….$1 Fillet O’Fish Fridays at McDonalds. The good ole Catholic that I was, couldn’t eat meat on Fridays. But here is where the sinful Pharisee in me really shined through. You see, as part of the Vatican II council meeting, they changed the rules and said that no longer must Catholics abstain from eating meat every Friday, now we only have to abstain from eating meat on Fridays during the 40 day lent season. Bad day for cows. Not me, I went old school and never under any circumstances would I eat meat on any Friday throughout the year. Just like my grandma. As she also taught me, since not eating meat on all Fridays was the norm. For lent, we would give up eating meat on Wednesdays as well. The cows were happy again. So was I, as that meant scungili Wednesdays for dinner.
As for mass on Sunday….
A lot of times I would attend the Saturday evening mass. Loved that we had that option available to us at times that Sunday mass interfered with my idolatry of football. Plus it would also allow me to sleep in after a Saturday night of clubbing with friends. With the only downside being that you lose that fantastic perk of Sunday morning forgiveness and cleansing of sins from that previous night. Now you would have to wait another week and carry the baggage with you.
I also was very old school Vatican I, in that I would only receive communion from the priest directly, not from an usher. And I would not take it in my hand, but it had to be placed directly by the priest himself. After all, he was holy and I was not worthy to touch the host. The actually broken body (according to Catholicism) of Jesus.
Boy, was I confident that I was earning many points up in Heaven with God. I was so holy. A religious fanatic. Plus, I was baptized as a baby, so I had my fire insurance, my get out of hell free card, just in case I didn’t earn my way to heaven.
I certainly can understand why so many people are turned off by religion. As they should. As we all should.
Fast forward about 5 years later and I am now thankful to God for saving me from the sin of religion. And yes, religion is a sin. All religion! Just ask Jesus who continually rails on the sinful, religious, Pharisees throughout His ministry on earth.
Religion is nothing but the formation of a bunch of sinful men, coming up with their own interpretation (false gospel) and list of rules of dos and don’ts to get into Heaven. The sad irony, although a bit comical if you really stop and think about it, is that is exactly the reason why God sent His one and only Son. To live the perfect life. Tempted like us but without sin unlike us (true meaning of lent which is Jesus 40 days of temptation in the desert without sin, after His baptism). To prepare for His ministry and ultimately His dying on the cross for our sins. Absorbing the punishment and wrath from God the father, that we ALL deserve. He died on the cross, because no matter how many tasty filet O fish sandwiches I ate. No matter how many consecutive Saturdays I went to Mass. No matter how many hail Marys and our fathers and rosaries I said. No matter if I did not drink alcohol and only took communion from the priest. No matter how big the ashes on my forehead nor how proudly I displayed them.
God knew from the beginning that all of us would always fall short and that we could never ever earn our way into Heaven. That is the beauty of the grace and mercy of what Jesus did FOR us, what we could not do.
Will this lent be different for you? Will you give up soda or meat or cussing for lent? Maybe, just maybe, you will give up religion and replace it with JUST JESUS!
Enjoy your Fillet O Fish Fridays as I now can. Knowing I am eating the unhealthy sandwich just because it tastes good. Not because I am trying to earn my way to Heaven.