By Msgr. Owen F. Campion - The Priest, 2/1/2012
Defining Lent is simple. Two words suffice, love and logic: absolute love, honest and effective because it is absolute, and logic, crisp and blunt.
Lent, with its practices and spiritual opportunities, is a time for a person to study what love for the Lord means personally and truly for him or her, to resolve to perfect and purify this love, and to realize this love in its very fullest, thereby drawing into self the power and peace of life with Christ.
Lent realistically declares that loving Christ is more than a general attitude. It is a love so deep for Jesus that copying the Lord’s example in every setting in life is the only purpose. Nothing half-hearted or casual will work. Love must be uncompromising, constant and all consuming. Theologians call this task, mighty as it is in the face of human weakness and sin, the pursuit of perfection.
Perfection in the theological sense has been a part of human response to salvation offered by the merciful God from the earliest stages of recorded salvation history. The Psalms use the analogy of “walking with God” (Cf.: Psalms 15:2, 18:33, 101:2, 119:1). Wisdom Literature does the same (Cf.: Prv 11:20, 28:18).
A person is perfect when he or she walks with God. The analogy is revealing in that walking is an act of progressing, of moving, of looking ahead, of having in sight a goal, and, in the context abundantly clear throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, of walking with, indeed, of following, God.
So God is the leader and the guide. He establishes the goal and therefore sets the path.
Trust in God, an outcome of faith, is obviously needed in this process of walking with God, of following Him. Deep within the understanding of faith in the Old Testament is God’s love for His Chosen People and, in return, their love for God. Most certainly, God is the font of justice and the supreme judge. Yet, again and again, constant throughout the long history of Israel, God is gentle, forthcoming in blessings and guidance, and most of all, merciful in the face of human sin.
For the ancients, walking with God, pursuing perfection as ascetical theologians later would call it, was no vague, imprecise or occasional general attitude. It was continuous, uncompromising, active and quite relevant in terms of everyday human living. Thus, the great sign of human love for God was obedience to the Decalogue. Actually, in practice for hundreds upon hundreds of years, in Jewish understanding, this obedience to the Decalogue was very exacting and certainly encompassed every aspect of life, from the religious obligation of resting on the Sabbath to the quite routine requirement of keeping each day the dietary laws. Confirming love for God by actions, simply included everything.
Salvation history has another side of its story. People wandered on their own, forsaking the path set by God, and most importantly, not walking with Him. Drawn by their own shortsighted definition of the goal of human living, they left God. In this defection, they could be very determined. Rarely did they learn from bad experiences. Rarely did they see that in their departure from God they were walking into dangerous territory.
The faults of the men and women of ancient Israel grew from tendencies hardly unique to them or to their times. In human nature, people today share the impulses and the poor vision that led the Chosen People of old to rebel and to leave God along the way to the promised place of peace and joy.
What about logic? Lent is about facing the facts of spiritual life — directly, forthrightly, and firmly. This means focusing, realistically admitting the power of sin, the lure of temptation therefore, and one’s personal inadequacies and failings. It means recognizing that humans, even with their cell phones and space stations, are very limited. Amid all this, and because of all this, it means reinforcing a sense of Christian purpose. It means withstanding temptation. It means going beyond what simply is necessary. It means realizing that God assists those earnestly asking for grace.
What about penance? From the earliest days of Christianity penance has played an essential role. Penance involves denial, but it builds upon acceptance. By its very character, penance is a process by which a person turns away from self-interest toward God in complete trust and in love. Necessarily this means turning away from sin — absolutely. It means setting new goals in life — realistic goals, honest in their rejection of the trivial and the fraudulent.
At the same time, penance is confessional. It draws a line between the useless and the requisite. It admits human helplessness and shortsightedness, but also human potential, precisely when that potential is reinforced by divine help or grace. It is faith-filled, with its confidence that God assists those earnestly asking for grace.
Penance is so much more than “giving up candy.” It is loving the Lord so much that nothing is allowed to compete with this love. Everything is put into perspective. Determination is fortified by actual assessment of the value of what is preferred or sought.
As the messianic mission of Jesus began, as seen in the Gospels, the image of John the Baptist powerfully came upon the scene, calling for penance, and its necessary prelude, the admission of sin and will to reform. John’s baptizing in the Jordan symbolized this admission and intention to reform. John’s very life, with all its austerity, symbolized his own dedication to being with God, of having no other purpose.
Voluntarily subordinating everything, even native human inclinations not necessarily sinful in themselves, to the task of perfection is an essential part of the Gospels. Jesus practiced these ideals. They are not easy for humans.
Jesus admonishes virginity precisely for those who can accept it, but this hardly excuses any Christian from chastity. Virginity and absolute poverty are ideals for every Christian. Even spouses must be chaste, reserving themselves for each other in the bond of sacramental matrimony (Cf.: Mt 19; 1 Cor 7).
Poverty is for all. Jesus urged, but did not command, the young man in the Gospel (Cf.: Lk 18) to sell everything and to give to the poor. Again noting the example of John the Baptist, owners of property must not covet goods and certainly must never take what belongs to others. And, of course, Christians must subject even their ownership of things to the call of charity.
If authentic, Lent insists upon humility, and for humans pressed by the fears and burdens of Original Sin and personal sin, being humble is perennially difficult. Trusting God, loving Him despite all fears, is key. No worthwhile spiritual introspection happens without humility, nor does any genuine metanoia.
The word “Lent” itself is Teutonic in origin and simply means springtime. At its root, it is neither theological nor ascetical. This word has endured through the centuries, however, and it remains the term by which Christians chiefly refer to the weeks prior to Easter, the feast of the Resurrection of Jesus.
Actually, the historic Latin designation, “quadragesima,” or the Latin word for the number 40, more directly goes to the inspiration and heart of Lent. (The French “careme,” the Italian “quaresima,” and the Spanish “cuaresma,” all derive from the Latin.
A retreat into solitude for thought and for rededication, most brilliantly seen in the 40 days of Jesus in the desert, has its preludes in the Old Testament. Moses spent 40 days with God on Sinai, communicating with and learning about God, and receiving from Him the very instruments by which the Covenant was to be lived, namely the Decalogue (Ref.: Ex 24). Elijah walked to Mount Horeb in a journey of 40 days, all in service to his prophetic calling (Ref.: 1 Kgs). God sent rain to fall upon the earth for 40 days while Noah kept the elect secure in the ark (Ref.: Gn 7). For 40 years, the Hebrews wandered across the desert searching for the land promised them by their saving God (Ref.: Nm 14). Jonah, the prophet, gave the sinners of Nineveh 40 days to repent (Ref.: Jon 3.) Specifically, for Christians, Lent recalls the 40 days and nights that Jesus spent in the desert, sharpening focus upon the Lord’s messianic mission and combating, victoriously, temptation.
Jesus, Son of Man, truly human, was tempted but never sinned. He assumed our sins, as the Lamb of God at John’s baptism in the Jordan, in the mystery of the Incarnation standing for all humanity. Obedient unto death, even death on the Cross, Jesus set the example, the model, the bridegroom, nothing less than the dearest and most loyal of brothers in human nature, in the Incarnation, the Redeemer.
Lent has a long history in Christian practice. As soon as the fifth century, St. Leo urged Christians to fast for 40 days, and furthermore he stated that fasting for 40 days was an apostolic tradition. St. Jerome only a few decades earlier said virtually the same. In A.D. 33, in his “Festive Letters,” St. Athanasius called upon believers to fast for 40 days prior to the Triduum.
Over time, customs and canons concerning the fast came to be. Some consumed no meat, only fish. Others ate the flesh of birds and of fish but no meat. Intake, of whatever kind, came to be restricted here and there, and this restriction, as a willful denial of food, became a recognized part of Lent. Even today, after the regulations for fasting and abstinence have been relaxed for some scores of years, Catholics openly tell others that they have “given up” sweets, or drink, or favorite dishes, for Lent.
In 1966, Pope Paul VI attempted to enhance the personal element of denial by lessening the canonical requirements once binding on Catholics and stressing instead voluntary denial. Now, 46 years later, this voluntary element remains an important, albeit often overlooked, opportunity for catechesis of the faithful. Catholics should sacrifice not because of fearing the consequence of disobeying canonical requirements, but because sincerely and maturely they wish to strengthen their Christian determination and in this effort be more perfect in the example of Christ.
A very splendid process regarding Lent has happened over the centuries in the liturgy of the season. Artistic and most expressive, the public worship of the Church, in its words and in its symbols, draws the soul very directly and quickly to the realities behind the season.
Once, for several weeks, violet drapes covered statues in churches. Crucifixes were covered in the same way, with a white drape being used on Holy Thursday. This has changed. But, churches still very clearly indicate the season. Flowers are not placed in sanctuaries. Violet is the color of vestments worn by celebrants and deacons, except on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, when red is the case, and on Holy Thursday, when white is the rule. Even these exceptions, the red and the white, powerfully call to mind the sacred events being commemorated and the meaning of these events for the lives of believers. Furthermore, liturgical music is subdued.
Orations and Prefaces eloquently speak of penance and of seeking perfection. So does the Liturgy of the Hours, in its Readings and orations for each day, and even in the mood of the psalms.
Dramatizing the importance of the season, with its undivided attention upon its purpose, is the canonical restriction forbidding festivities such as weddings and ordinations, except under unusual circumstances, such as major feasts that happen to fall during Lent.
Lent is a splendid opportunity to catechize about the Sacraments and to draw people to the Sacraments, which are deeply connected with Lent. Lent builds upon baptismal commitment. It even looks to the baptism of new Christians at the Easter Vigil.
Long have Lent and Confession, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, been linked in a most special way. The Sacrament, with its necessary reflection, accusation of self and submission to God, involves confession of past faults. Even so, it is about the future, about firm purpose of amendment, about conversion, and a new way of life. Since conversion is so vital to Lent, Confession, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, long has been part of the season.
Most of all, Lent and the Eucharist have a most basic and deepest connection. In the Mass, the sacrificial reconciliation of humankind with God — the communion, literally, of God with each believer and the gift of love of one believer for God and for all others — is reaffirmed and re-presented.
The Church offers Lent to the faithful as a most valued gift, time-tested in its effectives. It so frankly calls attention to the fact that loving the Lord with an unqualified genuine love is everything for the believer. Nothing else is honest as a response to the call to salvation.
In giving the Lord this love is to enjoy freedom, not to be bound, to be self-assured, not paranoid, to be wise, not duped, to be outreaching, not withdrawn, to be in communion with God and with all others, not alone.
It is love. It is so logical. Jesus is the “way, the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6). TP
MSGR. CAMPION is associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor and editor of The Priest magazine.
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