This week we will mark Ash Wednesday and with that we embark on another season of Lent leading to Easter in the Year of Salvation 2017. I am so ready for this time of spiritual renewal and I look forward to engaging in all that Lent has to offer. I truly hope the same for you.
It has not always been like this for me. Growing up I dreaded Ash Wednesday and Lent. I did not particularly care to fast and abstain from things I enjoyed. What was the point? More emphasis on prayer seemed impossible as my brother and I served for practically every liturgy we had. Banning all decorations from church and covering statues I thought unnecessarily bleak. And the Lenten sermons were downright scary. It all made for an unpleasant and gloomy experience. It felt like a dark cloud covered me for six weeks as I lived under the heavy burden of Lent and tried to be a Lenten champion doing everything I was supposed to do, and then some.
It took me a while to understand what Lent was really about. My big mistake was that I idolized the disciplines of Lent: praying, fasting, almsgiving. I saw Lent as some kind of disciplinary marathon of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. In a sense I made it all about me and my heroic Lenten accomplishments. I failed to see that the Lenten disciplines were merely the means toward the greater goal of bringing about a change of heart for the betterment of the Body of Christ.
Today, I realize that the principle goal of Lent is to coax us out of the safety of our comfortable, complacent, and often self-centered world. To that end, our Lenten prayer is not to be about ourselves. Rather, we are to pray for the well-being of others and for greater generosity toward others. Our Lenten fasting is not about depriving ourselves but rather about embracing a simpler lifestyle which in turn benefits those who are in need. Our Lenten almsgiving is not about the satisfaction of giving from our excess but about freeing ourselves from worldly possessions which in turn allows others a greater share in the world’s riches.
Pope Francis once asked this very poignant question: “Do we toss alms at a beggar from afar or do we look him in the eyes as we place the money in his hands?” This seemingly simple question touches on the essence of our Lenten journey. The moment we look those who are in need in the eyes and touch their hand, they become a person rather than a problem. It takes little effort to pray, fast, and give alms. It is much more difficult to acknowledge the person we are praying for, fasting for and giving alms. Yet when we do, in that moment, in that encounter, we cannot but be changed and become more like Christ as we recognize Christ in the other.
Our Lenten experience will be fruitful only when our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are focused on others, rather than on us. The power of Lent is that it causes us to turn away from ourselves toward one another, to look one another in the eye and to recognize that all of us together make up the one Body of Christ. Once we truly embrace this, then we will be ready to fully engage in the disciplines of Lent and prepare ourselves to worthily celebrate the Easter Mysteries.
A blessed Lent to everyone.