As the purple vestments of Lent give way to the white of the Easter season, church pews fill up as the bells ring and the scent of lilies fills the air — on Easter Sunday.
But after that, participation in the Eucharist seems to dip a bit, especially at daily Masses, as the people who decided to make more regular Mass attendance part of their plan for Lent drop away.
“Ever since I was ordained, I have been struck every year by the decrease in daily Mass attendance as soon as Lent ends,” Father John Bartunek, a Legionary of Christ who lives in the order’s General Directorate in Rome, wrote in a blog post about how best to observe the Easter season. “I am not trying to say that everyone is obliged to go to Mass on a daily basis (though it’s certainly not a bad idea, if you can work it out), but I often wonder if the benefits of our Lenten spiritual disciplines are sometimes eviscerated by our Easter laxity. Lent, after all, is only six weeks long, while the liturgical season of Easter lasts for eight weeks. What would happen if we lived the Easter season with as much fervor as we live Lent?”
Staying faithfully fit
Indeed, Lent should give Catholics a boost as they approach Easter, not send their efforts off a cliff once they reach the end of it, said Franciscan Friar Johnpaul Cafiero, who frequently gives Lenten missions and other talks at parishes, including one called “Spiritual Aerobics: Keeping Our Faith Life Fit.” The Easter season is no time for Catholics to take their feet off the spiritual gas pedal.
The way Friar Johnpaul looks at it, Lent — the Church’s 40-day period of preparation for Easter, with its focus on prayer, fasting and almsgiving — is like a spiritual boot camp, a time to get in good spiritual shape. The Easter season is the time for applying those lifestyle changes, making them permanent and enjoying their benefits.
Friar Johnpaul comes from a law enforcement background and now serves as a chaplain for the Illinois State Police, and he compares the obligation of Christians to keep themselves in good spiritual shape to a sign on the wall of one the state police roll-call rooms. It says, “If you choose law enforcement, you don’t have the option not to be fit.”
No matter how fit a person is, he or she can benefit from a little bit of a tune up every so often, Friar Johnpaul said.
“It’s got to be a lifestyle,” he said. “It’s got to be something you do throughout the year. Lent provides some extra focus.”
In a way, he said, Lent is like the first phase of a diet plan, when many foods are eliminated and an extra focus is put on getting more exercise.
“You can’t go on a diet for 10 days — or 40 days — and expect it to work,” Friar Johnpaul said. “Physically, you want to be healthy. Spiritually, you want to be holy. We have a whole list of these attributes we must have, not just during Lent but always in our lives. Lent really highlights the program. It gives us the direction of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.”
Ideally, those become habits, done without a second thought, especially prayer, which should be an ongoing conversation with God.
It is not a “divine dispensing machine,” and it’s not a recitation of empty words. The example to follow is that of Jesus, so intent on his prayer to his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane that he sweated blood, Friar Johnpaul said.
In that prayer, Jesus spoke, but he also listened, Friar Johnpaul said. That’s something people need to work on in the modern world.
Almsgiving is an extension of the stewardship to which Jesus called his followers, Friar Johnpaul said.
“We’re always called to be good stewards of our resources,” he said. “It’s in Matthew 25: ‘That which you do for the least of these’ ... it’s the works of mercy. Do we volunteer our time? Do we help out at our parish? Do we help clean up our neighborhood?
“Faith has to affect fact, and stewardship means more than writing a check,” he added.
Twist on fasting
Fasting is not something people need to do all the time, Friar Johnpaul said, and fasting during Lent need not be only about food.
“We have to fast to get the spiritual toxins out of our bodies,” he said. “We need to fast not just from food, but also from gossip, from dualism, the idea that it’s us vs. them. We’re always giving up lima beans or ice cream. It’s ‘What’s the least I can do to get through and still follow the rules?’”
That’s the attitude that leads people to abandon whatever Lenten efforts they made as soon as the flame is lit to start the Easter Vigil.
On the other hand, it’s possible to take the fasting too far, said Taylor Marshall, a former Episcopal priest from Texas who joined the Catholic Church in 2006. One Lent, he tried to follow Eastern Rite Lenten practices, giving up not just meat but also dairy and eggs for the whole Lenten period. Then when he tried to join the Easter feast, his body rebelled at the rich food.
“I’ve learned that fasting and penance is not the Olympic Games,” Marshall said. “Nobody is watching, and it’s not a competition. We should be humble about our physical limitations.”
But he also said Lent offers more than enough time to change habits.
“It takes 21 days to build a habit,” he said. “That’s what science has found. If we kept a good Lent, we have 40 days of habit-building.
“Thomas Aquinas teaches that virtue is a good habit,” he added. “We want to habituate ourselves to live for Christ.”
Celebrate the season
Father Bartunek wrote that continuing good spiritual practices does not mean Easter is just a continuation of Lent. As Lent is a season of penance, Easter is a season of rejoicing.
“Just as in Lent we denied ourselves some legitimate delights as a way to unite ourselves to Christ’s self-sacrifice, so during Easter we should intentionally enjoy the good things of life, as a way to unite ourselves to Christ’s victory and triumph,” he wrote on the Roman Catholic Spiritual Direction website (rcspiritualdirection.com). “We always have a victory celebration when our team wins the championship. Well, Jesus has won the eternal championship, and we are on his team; we need to celebrate that.”
And no one likes to celebrate alone, he said, so Catholics must use the Easter season to reach out.
“Like the candlelight service during the Easter Vigil, we can share with others the light of Christ’s victory that we have received and roll back the tattered shadows of the kingdom of darkness,” Father Bartunek said. “Renewing our efforts to bring others closer to Christ, to help others who are in need — those close to us or those far away — can color our lives with Easter joy if we season those efforts with prayer and faith. Christians should smile more during Easter, because true joy draws forth joy.”
Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.