Tuesday, February 28, 2017
Forging Forward in Hope: Lent 2017
Lent is a time of purification in preparation for the Season of Easter. It's 40 days, beginning Ash Wednesday, stretch like Jesus' 40 days in the desert or Israel's 40 days in the desert. For Israel, their 40 years were a time a purification from their faithlessness and fear. For Jesus, His 40 days were a time of preparation for His entering into His public ministry of the proclamation of the Gospel, with its climax in the crucifixion and resurrection. Our 40 days are both, a time of purification and preparation. The tools of Lent tell us much about the reason for the season.
Ashes, Ashes, We all Fall Down
The season begins with Ash Wednesday. The ashes are made from the palms of the prior year's Palm Sunday. The use of ashes remind of the old Latin phrase, "Sic transit gloria mundi." Thus passes the glory of the world. From 1409 to 1963 these words were used in the installation of a new pope, to remind Him all the glory he sees on display is temporary; his ministry is to point to the higher. The ashes remind us that all we see, even our very bodies, will be ash one day. What a woeful thing to connect our hopes to future ash! Lent calls us to attach ourselves to the eternal.
The readings of the Mass remind us to 'rend our hearts, not our garments (Joel 2:13) and remind us of the tripod of Lent in the Gospel: fasting, praying, and alms-giving, Each Lent begins with a like theme to Advent: preparing the way of the Lord in our hearts. These actions have a purpose that are not meant to be hoops to jump through for 40 days, they are to set us on a path for victory. What have fasting, abstinence, and alms-giving to do with victory? What have they to do with preparation for Easter? I am glad you asked?
If we are to move from a fixation on the temporal and move to a gaze fixed on the eternal, then a change in direction will be required. While we live, we are surrounded by temporal. Everything we know can be sensed. It is easy to get fixed on these things. Furthermore, when we live in a society where the accrual of earthly goods is the primary goal, where the sating of our passions and appetites is dominant, we can be enslaved to the temporal order. We become enslaved to ash. Lent bids us to take a chisel and hammer to our chains. This comes in the form of a focus on the cardinal virtue of temperance.
The idea of giving something up for Lent, also known as abstinence, is about flexing some temperance muscle. Oftentimes we will give up something for Lent in order to temper our addiction to a worldly thing: candy, TV, social media, and so on. Abstinence misunderstood becomes cyclical; namely that we go through the hard work of breaking our chains only to reforge them again once the Easter season arrives. Somehow, "Alleluia, Christ is Risen" and "Woohoo, let's go back to my enslavement" are not terribly coherent. In utilizing the virtue of temperance, we seek to be free of needing what we gave up. Truth be told, our lives will function just fine without what we gave up. IN fact, if we are honest, our lives fare better.
Lent is supposed to further growth away from the temporal and towards the eternal, not be a yo yo between the two planes. Fasting, furthers this theme of detachment, reminding ourselves that our appetites can be contained, our passions can be held in check, and we can do so with great joy and grace. Mortification, a word long banished from the modern lexicon because why we would do something purposely to make ourselves miserable. Mortifications are actions that point us to a greater good. If we are in a bad place of enslavement, then mortifications will make us miserable for a bit. Mortification, while not called by this word, is more common than you think.
Mortification can come on that hot humid summer day running drills at football practice. It i done not to make the player miserable, but to teach essential skills if one wishes to be victorious. Mortification comes in the form of the training of soldiers, especially of special forces, in which their bodies and minds are pushed to their limits so as to achieve an excellence. Mortification comes in the form of the student who studies instead of going out with friends, done to achieve an excellence in education and academics. Mortification comes in form a weigh lifters challenging himself, a dancer doing the same steps over and over and over again, or anyone else pursuing excellence in a field. Surely, if we will do this for things that pass to as, all the more we should be doing it for the eternal!
Dropping the Mirror
The next leg in the tripod is alms-giving. In redirecting our focus away from the enslavement to the things of this world, our eyes are opened to that which eternal. The eternal is soaked in self-giving love. Being freed of enslavement, we drop our mirrors and see the world as a place in which to love persons and not things. Self-giving love is never a static thing. It seeks to reach and give. To this end, the Scriptures talk about alms-giving. It means to give of our resources for the good of others. With our vision being cleared, we find there is much out there in need of our intervention. Not consumed by our wants, we clearly see another person's needs.
Alms-giving is the natural sibling of detachment. In our changing direction and focus, we now look to the good of others as we believe God looks to our good. Alms-giving shows a thankfulness to God and recognition of His goodness in our lives. When we joyfully give to the needs of others, we show ourselves to be children of our Father. Remember, God is never to be outdone in generosity!
Knowing our Source
Let's be honest though. This IS hard. If detachment and alms giving, everyone would be doing it. But many do not, because it is hard. The third leg of the tripod is prayer. It is a desire to grow closer to God through being more intentional in our prayer and spending added time in prayer. All the good works in the world will not usher into heaven. No, a relationship with God does and that relationship can not be ignored.
Be mindful, that while prayer is not merely flinging words at God, or sitting in a place where people happen to be praying, prayer is willful engagement of our will directed toward God. Our prayer must be humble and honest...not to ourselves...but to God. The prayer of a person seeking God's help to change to the positive would require a confession of failing to do so, an acknowledgment of the chains of habitual sin, and a desire to be free of these chains once and for all.
As Catholics, we are given this grace in the most concrete form through the sacraments, particularly in the two we can do many times over: Eucharist and Confession.Through the Scriptures, the sacraments, and the Church, God makes it clear He wants a place in our lives every day. Hence studying the Scriptures, praying, engaging in the sacraments, and actively ridding ourselves of the chains of enslavement show God we want a daily place in His life.
The end goal of Lent, in its purification and preparation, is to forge forward in hope, setting a trajectory towards eternal life. The goal is 40 days of misery with a recapitulation to the sin we were tempering; but to walk out of Lent and into Easter a free person purged of needless weight. The prayer. alms-giving, and detachment are not temporary, but life long companions that draw us closer to God and into eternal life...the life of the Resurrection. So, chin up, shoulder up, and march on and away from what you hope to leave behind on Ash Wednesday!