Tonight marks the beginning of the season we know as Lent, a season which is dreaded by many otherwise faithful Catholics, or whose end can never seem to come quickly enough for others. And why not, after all, Lent is brought to an end by none other than the Triduum and Easter, perhaps the most liturgically beautiful and theologically important season of the year. Nor can I say, with a semblance of honesty, that Lent is my own personal favorite liturgical season. After all, it is (among other things) a time of fasting, of meatless Fridays of days spent in sacrifice, of “giving something up.”
First and foremost, it is a time of spiritual growth. The fasting reminds us that we are more than material beings, that we are not to “live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). In fasting, we remind ourselves that we are to be subject so a power greater than that of our own hunger, namely, the obedience to God Himself. Our earthly needs are also separated from our wants, our desires. In doing such, we are able to gain the freedom which comes from having control of our passions, our desires, and we are able to control our wills, so that they may be placed subject to God’s Will. Thus, Lent serves as a time of discernment.
In Lent, we follow Jesus into the desert to prepare ourselves for our own ministries, and to allow our hearts to be converted again. In his “Journey to Easter,” then Cardinal Ratzinger noted that the desert is a place of death, lacking even the most basic element of life: water. The future Pope Benedict noted that the desert is not only a place of biological death, but of temptation, the place where the power of the devil (“the murderer from the beginning”) is made manifest. “Entering into the desert, Jesus exposes himself to this power, opposes himself to this power, continues the action of his baptism, the action of the Incarnation, descending not only into the depths of the waters of the Jordan, but descending moreover into the depths of human misery—as far as the region of broken love, of destroyed relationships, in that solitude to be found throughout the world by sin.” In entering into the desert, we are in effect dying to our sins, which were at one time washed away by the waters of baptism; how fitting then, is it that we experience this time of “death to sin” so shortly before Easter and the renewal of our baptismal vows?
The death to sin which is central to lent brings with it both conversion and repentance. Without the repentance, we would be unable to turn our hearts back to God, unable to seek His forgiveness, His mercy, and of course His love. Without the conversion, our repentance would be in vain, would be shallow, and would lack the sincerity to see it through. Each needs the other, the repentance to make room for God in our hearts, and the conversion of accepting God back into our hearts to avoid falling back into sins.
It is here again that the fasting and prayer play a crucial role. In fasting, we are essentially giving something up, something perhaps which we enjoy, or perhaps an engrained vice (or perhaps both). Fasting, then, helps us to tame our impulses, which may otherwise lead us into sin, and thus helps us to overcome some of our sins, to begin the process of repentance. Prayer than enters into the picture at this point—turning away from sins, we can turn to God, who gives us strength. Repenting, we apologize to God, beg for His forgiveness and mercy, and we ask for His grace, which strengthens us to continue turning away from sin, fortifying us against temptation.
Fasting has the added benefit of making us more thankful for God’s gifts in our lives. Certainly, we may begin to appreciate a thing when we lose it; one never quite appreciates a meal as much as when one is truly hungry. The fasting may at times also bring to light other gifts in our lives, even gifts which we never recognized though they had been staring us in the face for so long. Maybe we make a promise to give up eating deserts to find that we had neglected the delicacy of the main meal. It is possible that we “fast” from a bad habit such as swearing, we at last discover our capacity for expressing ourselves. Or perhaps we fast from watching television, only to realize how truly beautiful are the stars.
This is where we might encounter “almsgiving,” the third pillar upon which our Lenten renewal is founded. It is too easy for us to interpret almsgiving as being nothing more that sharing our money with the poor or the Church. How easily we forget that “alms” really mean gifts, and that we are thus not merely to increase our donations of money to our favorite charity for the next five weeks; in almsgiving, we are to share our gifts, our time, talents, and (yes) treasures, but without any undue emphasis on our treasures. Might it not be a good use of time to volunteer at a soup kitchen, or to use ones talents for building a new homeless shelter? Or would it be better to spend some time visiting a retirement home to give comfort to the lonely, or praying outside of an abortion clinic to give hope to those who know despair?
Finally, I should mention one last element of Lent which I have heard preached, but which I had never really associated with the season. Lent may be thought of as a season of joy. This statement may seem a bit ironic amidst the solitude of the masses ending in silence, a bit out of place amongst the fasting and repentance. In a sense, it may be simply said that Lent is a time of joy only so far as one might know joy through suffering, through taking up ones cross to follow Christ. But I think that there is something more to the idea of “Lenten Joy” than just this, that it is not just a joyful attitude towards suffering with Christ.
Specifically, I mentioned before that during Lent, we are mean to make room in our hearts and in our lives for God. We experience a renewed conversion, a renewed turning of our hearts to the One Who created us, to the One Who loved us enough to redeem us. We are thus able to deepen our relationship with God, to come closer to the source of all joy. In so doing, we are surely also able to experience joy in a new way, or at least in a deeper and more meaningful way. It is only after following Him into the depths of defeat, misery, and death that we are able to rise again with Him into the victory of new life. In witnessing His victory over the despair of death, we at last encounter the hope of our salvation—and here come to know the joy of His everlasting love.