God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good. (Gn 1:31)
Today, known variously as Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, or Shrove Tuesday, is the day on which we say “farewell to the flesh” and the things of this world in preparation for the beginning of Lent. Lent is that lo-o-o-ong season of fasting and abstinence in which we learn to despise this old world—isn’t it? It’s all about beating down the cravings of our appetites and escaping the allurements which weigh down the soul—right? After all, doesn’t the Good Book say, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”?
Well . . . yes. However, the Church seems to take aim at the more strident expressions of this mentality by giving us a selection at Mass from the first creation account of Genesis. The reading recounts God’s creation of the sea creatures, the birds of the air, the wild animals of the earth, and finally of man himself. It assures us that everything God made was very good. But, why remind us that all of creation is good right before asking us to give it up? Indeed, why ask us to give it up at all?
The Church gives us the season of Lent not so that we can learn how bad the flesh is, but rather so that we can come to truly appreciate it and see it in its proper perspective—as a good oriented to a higher good. St. Thomas Aquinas says that the essence of goodness is that it is in some way desirable, and that a thing is desirable insofar as it is perfect, and that it is perfect insofar as it is actual or existing. God finds creation to be “very good” simply because it exists. It exists by sharing in His existence. Besides this, the vast array of creatures share in the perfection of God in other ways and to varying degrees. At the highest level of material creation is man, who, as Genesis tells us, is made in the image and likeness of God. This is in virtue of his having an intellect and will. With these two spiritual faculties he can know and love Existence itself, the Perfection of every perfection. Apart from the angels, no other creature can do the same.
God has given us one day per week to rest from our labors in imitation of Him so that we may be free to lift up our minds and hearts in contemplation of His goodness. Unfortunately, our desires for lesser goods around us, if overindulged, can cloud the intellect and enslave the will, causing us to ignore Him. The Church gives us the season of Lent to refocus our attention on higher goods and especially on the Love which wrought our redemption. Say farewell to the flesh then, not with hesitancy and dread, but with the hope that our highest and most noble powers will be perfected by the Good which is their end.
Image: Thomas Cole, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden