Chocolate for Lent

Lent 2, 2012

Mark 8:31-38

Marian Free

In the name of God who draws us out of darkness into light, from despair to hope and from death to life. Amen.

Some of you may have seen the movie or read the book “Chocolat”. It tells the story a quiet and conservative French village that lives life very seriously and rigidly.  As the narrator says at the beginning of the film: “If you lived in this village you understood what was expected of you. You knew your place in the scheme of things and if you happened to forget there was always someone to remind you. In this village if you saw something you weren’t supposed to see, you learned to look the other way or if by chance your hope had been disappointed you learned never to ask for more.“ Life was quiet and orderly if dull and constrained. There was certainly no room for joy or exuberance.

The mayor of the town took his role as the leader of that little village very seriously. “He modeled by example, hard work, modesty and discipline.” Part of his role as he understood it was to protect the moral fibre of the community. He not only attended church regularly but ensured that everyone else did as well. When the new young priest came to the village, the mayor edited all his sermons so that the views from the pulpit reinforced his, the mayor’s, moral precepts and helped maintain a certain standard of behaviour in the village.

It was therefore, a quiet, orderly village, but that did not make it a happy one. Beneath the apparently untroubled surface lay a turmoil of suppressed longings, hidden violence and broken dreams.

One year, during Lent, everything changes. Vivianne – an unmarried mother – arrives in the village with her daughter and upsets the finely tuned balance of this conservative community. Viviane is not only unmarried, she is different in other ways. She wears bright clothes and does not attend church. She supports and then shelters the woman who is regularly beaten by her husband. She befriends the gypsies who arrive on the riverbank and – perhaps worst of all – she opens a chocolaterie in the middle of Lent when the whole community is observing a period of fasting and abstinence.

It is not just the chocolaterie that is a problem. Somehow Vivianne’s warmth, her care for those who don’t fit the community’s rigid norms and her inclusiveness expose the coldness,meaness and unkindness that lie beneath the outward appearance of goodness and moral uprightness in the village. Because of Vivianne’s presence, even the mayor learns that his self-imposed ideals have not led to certainty and peace but rather to a sense of failure and confusion.

On Easter Day, the priest – freed from the editorial efforts of the mayor – speaks from his heart. “This is what I think: We can’t measure our goodness by what we don’t do, by what we deny ourselves, what we resist and who we exclude. We measure our goodness by what we embrace, what we create and who we include.” A great burden is lifted from the shoulders of the people of the village as they come to understand that their imperfections do not need to be suppressed or hidden, but can be accepted as part of the wholeness of who and what they are.

Sadly, throughout history, the Christian message has been distorted and misrepresented. Christianity has been used as a means of control or to ensure conformity to a particular social code. Faith has been taught as obedience to a rigid set of rules, as a passive acceptance of life’s hardships, or as an austere existence that forgoes all but the most simple pleasures.  Chocolat  exposes the way in which faith has sometimes been confused with tradition and respectability and how easily Christianity can be used to limit and restrict an individual’s or even a whole community’s enjoyment of  life.

Today’s gospel provides an example of the way in which a single piece of scripture can be used to narrow rather than open up possibilities.  Jesus says: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” At first glance the meaning seems obvious – in order to follow Jesus and be saved, we have to give up all our worldly pleasures and endure a joyless existence until finally we die and receive our reward. That is certainly how it is often used. I’m sure we have all heard, even if we haven’t used the expression: “We all have our crosses to bear.” As if we believe in a God who sends us hardships simply to test our fortitude and our willingness to suffer.

Life already has its share of sorrow and disillusionment – we don’t have to add to them by burdening ourselves. Taking up our cross is not a metaphor for subduing our passions or for mortifying our flesh. We are followers of the one whose death on the cross opened the door to resurrection life. When we take up our cross we do so because we know that not only does it hold the key to resurrection life, but that it will also lead to a deeper and richer experience of life in the present.

God who gave us life does not ask us to live a half-life, hiding in the shadows fearful of putting a foot wrong, or putting on a brave face, keeping up appearances and separating ourselves from the less worthy. If we make our standards too high or try to too hard to be what we are not, eventually cracks will begin to appear and selves that we are trying to hide will be exposed. To be truly Christian is to live in a way that is true to ourselves, not by pretending to be something that we are not. When we take up our cross, we do so in order to be more authentic, not less so.

As the priest says in the movie: “We can’t measure our goodness by what we don’t do, by what we deny ourselves, what we resist and who we exclude. We measure our goodness by what we embrace, what we create and who we include.”  This Lent, may you take up your cross, joyfully and expectantly knowing that you will lose only those things that you did not need and that you will gain more than you could ever imagine!

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