By Kay Cozad
As the season of Lent approaches, the dark winter becomes a time of hope as the Church faithful prepare for the commemoration of the Passion and death of Jesus Christ and the celebration of His resurrection during the three holy days of the Easter Triduum. This 40-day spiritual journey becomes a means of deepening faith and practicing new ways to live out the Gospel message.
Traditionally, this penitential season has a focus on prayer, fasting and alms giving or acts of charity. It is a quiet time of self-examination and subsequent action with a call to conversion that enriches faith and deepens the relationship with Jesus Christ. French-Catholic philosopher A.G. Sertillanges writes, “Conversion means a willingness to see the truth of things and conform one’s conduct to it.”
So in response to prayer and contemplation during the six weeks of Lent, action is called for. Past generations of Catholic children were first introduced to the practice of Lent through self-sacrifice. The daily struggle of giving up gum or carbonated beverages for six weeks was penance enough as the young challenged their own self-discipline.
The notion of mindful service came on the scene as a viable alternative to giving up a pleasure for many of those children as they grew into adulthood. Attending extra Mass or serving at the soup kitchen added motion to their Lenten sacrifice. But “doing” should never replace the act of self-sacrifice.
Msgr. Michael Heintz, rector of St. Matthew Cathedral in South Bend, says, “There is actually an important reciprocal relationship between the kinds of sacrifices undertaken and the acts of charity and good works that issue forth. It has been fashionable to suggest that ‘giving up’ something is less important, and that ‘doing something positive’ is where it’s at. This is too simplistic and fails to understand the nature of the sacrifices undertaken precisely as the condition of possibility for the positive deeds of charity to be done; it is precisely by sacrifice in communion with Christ that we can be liberated from our enslavement to ourselves and become in fact freer to engage in active charity.”
Sacrifice in communion with Christ can bring hearts out of the “self” and into the sacred place of self-giving — the two go hand-in-hand. And while it is the conversion of self through giving up or doing that the faithful strive for during Lent the focus must always remain squarely on Jesus.
Father Tom Shoemaker, pastor of St. Jude Parish in Fort Wayne agrees saying, “It seems to me that Lent easily becomes a season focused on self. It is a season when we focus on our sins, when we name our virtues and vices and when we plan the changes needed in our lives. It is also a season when we take action — setting into place sacrifices and practices, which will help us grow in virtue and offer a gift to the Lord.”
“All of this is good and worthwhile,” Father Shoemaker says. “But the main focus of Lent probably shouldn’t be on self. It should be on Jesus. Jesus loves us enough that He has given His life to save us. He is our Savior, He is our model, and He is our goal. Surely Jesus should be the focus of Lent. Maybe the best Lent is one in which we make more time to be with Jesus.”
The simplicity of that focus is not lost on Mary Glowaski, Secretary for Evangelization and Special Ministries, who recalls her childhood Lenten practices. “When I was a little girl we would give things up, never eat meat on Friday and my mom would encourage us to think of something good to do for others. … Lent was a time of focus and simplicity; a time when although we worked very hard to be aware of our sinfulness we also had a deeply rooted understanding it was also a time of hope and the promise of forgiveness and new life.”
“Lent,” she adds, “is a time when we are reminded of just how much we matter to God. It is a time that we can overtly, and intensely turn our hearts to God, to focus on Him and His love for us and to walk with Him as we carry our own crosses in the confidence and comfort of God’s love and the hope of the Resurrection. ”
So how does one go about making a good Lent?
Deacon Jim Fitzpatrick from St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Fort Wayne implemented a challenge to his fellow parishioners at the start of the New Year that he says may be adapted for Lent. In the tradition of New Year’s resolutions, the faithful were invited to commit to three spiritual resolutions — a trip to daily Mass once each month, learn a new prayer and teach it to someone each month, and gather with family to read and discuss Scripture for 30 minutes each month with no electronic interruptions. Many have taken the challenge and found a deeper sense of faith.
Deacon Fitzpatrick says an adaptation of these faith formation practices might be, “to go to daily Mass one time each of the six weeks, or pray a different Station of the Cross each week. Take time once a day for contemplation. They can go to the Stations of the Cross each week. Many parishes pray them on Fridays.”
Whatever Lenten practice is chosen, the 40 days leading to the Resurrection celebration can be a deeply moving time of communion with Jesus as the faithful turn inward in prayer.
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