Happy (almost) Lent! I pray that this journey for us all is fruitful and leads us closer to Christ.
I remember especially well the six years I spent in seminary formation and how this time grew my appreciation for the Lenten season. Lent was a HUGE deal in the seminary (every year seminarians joked about making "I Love Lent" t-shirts and I usually scowled at them in return). Yet, the special emphasis the seminary culture gave to the penitential nature of this season was an opportunity for my own spiritual growth and helped me to focus on the ways I often drown out the Lord in my own life. One example I remember vividly was how much noise there is in my life. From the radio, television, podcasts, and my phone, I was continuously surrounded by things and people talking at me. Lent, in its simplicity, was a chance for the Lord to speak to me. In the simple and silent character of the Lenten season, the Lord's voice grew louder. However, initially letting go of many things and comforts I enjoyed each day, I began to feel like I was being thrown around like a ship at sea without an anchor. Then, the Lord made Himself known through the silence and intentional focus that I, and the seminary community, gave to Him. I was no longer being thrown around as the Lord became my anchor and sheltered from the storm. This is where the full beauty of Lent made itself known and the Lord drew me closer to Him than I had ever been before (so much so that if they had actually made the t-shirts, I would have been the first in line!).
This week, as we begin Lent, we find ourselves in a God-given, providential time, where we, together and individually, have an opportunity to turn back to the Lord, to trust and rest in Him. This resting and seeking shelter in the Lord is expressed beautifully in the first reading on Ash Wednesday (March 6) given to us by the prophet Joel to "rend your hearts, not your garments."
In biblical and ancient days, the rending of garments (such as we the high priest do regarding Jesus in the movie "The Passion of the Christ"), is a gesture of renunciation and separation from something terrible or evil. In general, the custom was done in an effort for one to stand firm in the Lord by disassociating one's self from sin in an effort to desire only the Lord. Hence Joel's prophetic exhortation, speaking on behalf of God, to rend the heart is a reminder for Israel (and us) to separate ourselves on the most fundamental level from all those things that distract or otherwise turn our attention away from God.
Similarly, the "heart" in the biblical sense had a different meaning than it does for us today. Most of the time we associate the heart with our emotions and feelings. However, for the biblical person, the heart meant the very core of who a person is. Thus, the call from Joel is a reminder for us to separate ourselves on the most intimate level from sin and temptation, and to seek Christ above all else! This is the power of Lent! A forty-day journey through the desert to walk with the Lord and, as we examine ourselves, see how/where/ why we lose focus on the Lord.
To accomplish this goal, the Church provides three means by which we can rededicate ourselves to God: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
Prayer is a conversation with God, or, as St. Therese of Lisieux describes: "Prayer is, for me, an outburst from the heart; it is a simple glance darted upwards to Heaven; it is a cry of gratitude and of love in the midst of trial as in the midst of joy!" Prayer does not have to be complicated. Start small. For ex- th ample, if you only have 2½ minutes each day for prayer, then give that the Lord! Prayer is less about the technique, method, and format than it is about the relationship. This is why the Church gives us many beautiful traditions of prayer, several of which we do here at St. Mary Magdalene. These devotions can be both communal or private and include: The Rosary, Divine Mercy Chaplet, Liturgy of the Hours (done Tuesday mornings at 7:15), Eucharistic Adoration, Respect Life initiatives (such as our weekly holy hour and 40 Days for Life), daily Mass, Stations of the Cross, Exodus 90, prayerful reading of Scripture, etc. These are offered so that, if we find ourselves struggling to pray, then we can try something new and foster our relationship with Jesus Christ. This Lent, whatever, or however, you can give yourself to Him, do it. Then watch how your relationship with Christ transforms and grows throughout Lent and beyond!
Fasting is the renunciation (either tem- porarily or permanently) of material goods. It helps us to cultivate the virtues necessary for the spiritual life. It also helps us to fuel our prayer since whenever we fast and are tempted to partake in that which we have given up. Turning to prayer is how we persevere. St. Peter Chrysologus (a Doctor of the Church known for his homilies [#priestlyaspirationsforFrChris] who died in 450 AD) writes: "Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. So, if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others, you open God's ear to yourself." In the renunciation that fasting offers us, we learn how to let go of our own desires so that we can encounter each person in front of us with a heart and mind that yearn for their wellbeing.
Almsgiving is similar to fasting. We sacrificially donate our earthly resources to those in need and again learn how to set aside our own desires for the sake of the other. St. Francis of Assisi, a very powerful devotee of poverty and simplicity provides the following about almsgiving: "Let us have charity and humility, and give alms, for almsgiving cleanses our souls from the filth of sin. At death we lose all that we have in this world, but we take with us charity and the alms-deeds we have done, and for these we shall receive a great reward from God." In other words, St. Francis reminds us that through these offerings of our earthly treasure, we turn our gaze more and more towards heaven and begin to "store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal" (Mt. 6:20).
To that end, as you discern this week what disciplines the Lord is calling you to undergo, unite yourself always, and in all things, to Him. One piece of advice I would give regarding what to give up is this: think of the one thing you DO NOT want to give up. That's what the Lord wants you to give up for Him! Usually the things we do not want to let go of are the biggest idols in our life, or things that we value more than our relationship with Christ. Know that Lord will not let that sacrifice (and others) go unnoticed nor unrewarded.
Know that you are in my prayers!
God bless you.