This Lent ... Read, Reflect, Respond

During the season of Lent, we want to imitate Jesus’ 40 days of preparation for his ministry, so we spend “40 days” of prayer and fasting and other spiritual exercises in order to prepare for the great feast of Easter.

Along with days of fasting and abstaining from meat on Fridays, we also can add a personal exercise, as many people do when they deprive themselves of some favorite activity or food — watching “Downton Abbey” or eating Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups — in order to sharpen their focus on Jesus and his passion. Some people, instead of not doing something, choose to do something more like attend an extra Mass during the week or volunteer at a soup kitchen.

Here is another suggestion that will help us not only meet our desire to imitate Jesus, but also to immerse ourselves in the details of his life. A venerable practice in our Catholic Tradition is to place oneself in a particular Gospel scene by the use of the imagination. We keep in mind as we read that while Scripture can (and should) be studied, we are not students in this exercise. We are followers and Christ-lovers who desire to encounter the Word made flesh.

To facilitate this exercise, we have provided the citations for each of the Lenten Gospels from Ash Wednesday to the Fifth Sunday of Lent, and a reflection based on each Gospel. There is also a passage focusing on Palm Sunday, Holy Week and the Sacred Triduum as well. A method one may use consists of three steps: read, reflect and respond. The reader could begin by slowly and deliberately reading the particular passage, inserting oneself into the scene and observing the place, the people, where Jesus is in relation to others and to oneself, with whom Jesus is speaking, and what he is saying. If a word or action sparks a thought or an image, then consider what God might be saying or bringing to mind at that moment. After reading the passage, one may turn to the reflection provided, which may lead to other insights. As it is with any exercise, one must practice it to receive the benefit, which in the case of prayer may be a feeling of gratitude to God, a desire to confess a sin and receive forgiveness, or to forgive someone ourselves. The proper response is to do what our prayer has prompted.

Keep in mind that if we spend a lot of time surfing the Internet and watching television, keeping quiet in the Lord is going to take some practice. But is there no way to gauge the effects of prayer? Scripture offers the standard: Is our love of God manifesting itself in love of our neighbors with the fruit of forgiveness, justice, compassion, understanding, forbearance, patience, humility, meekness and kindness? One can readily see how in prayer we must seek the Lord and beg for his grace.

At the same time, a good measure of practical wisdom will help too. We have daily duties; we may also have established prayer habits. We should pick a time and place most congenial for quiet meditation, keeping in mind our responsibilities and schedules. It will be different for everyone. As St. Francis de Sales noted wisely in “Introduction to the Devout Life,” a person engaged in the affairs of the world cannot have the same prayer life as a monk in an abbey. But we can order our lives so that prayer is a priority; we can stretch ourselves to achieve new patterns of prayer. And we can carry the fruit of prayer with us at all times, keeping Jesus and his words and actions on our minds and discerning how we might respond in a concrete way.

All it takes is to act on our love for Jesus and trust that he is going to meet us where we are. This Lent, let us take another step toward Jesus, to encounter our Lord who stretched out his arms on the cross to save us, and who still waits for us with open arms.

Father David Werning is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington.

Ash Wednesday | First Sunday of Lent | Second Sunday of Lent | Third Sunday of Lent | Fourth Sunday of Lent | Fifth Sunday of Lent | Palm Sunday/Holy Week

Ash Wednesday
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ASH WEDNESDAY

READ: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

REFLECT: Jesus is speaking about important spiritual exercises for his followers: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. It is not necessary at this moment to call to mind that his words here are part of his Sermon on the Mount, although one may if it is helpful to the imagination. I am reading and hearing his words today in the season of Lent. What is Jesus saying? What expression is on his face? Maybe I see him seated on a large rock talking to his disciples and a crowd of people with whom I stand, or maybe he is in a modern church addressing an assembly in the pews. He mentions hypocrites three times, people who perform religious deeds in order to be seen by others. Don’t be like them, he says. Perhaps the image of a notorious TV evangelist comes to mind, or an annoying proselytizer ringing the doorbell on my front porch. But then it hits me: He is talking directly to me. “When you give alms ...” “When you pray ...” “When you fast ...”

RESPOND: I pray: Lord, thank you for this insight. Forgive me for noticing the splinter in another’s eye without tending to the log in my own. Am I hypocrite? How do I give alms, pray and fast? Are these essential exercises a part of my life of discipleship? Now I appreciate more the ashes on my forehead: I am dust, and to dust I will return. And I would remain dust except for one glorious truth: Jesus died on the cross to save me from eternal death. I resolve to move toward eternal life confident in God’s grace, practicing penance for my sins and full of hope and joy through Jesus’ resurrection.

Key Dates
March 1: Ash Wednesday (beginning of Lent)

FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT

READ: Mark 1:12-15

Lent
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REFLECT: Did I read the words correctly? “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert” for 40 days, and Jesus was tempted by Satan. What is more incredulous: that God’s own Spirit would drive Jesus into the desert or that God’s own son would be tempted by Satan? I imagine Jesus sitting in the sand, sunburnt and solemn. At first, I think how lonely he must feel, maybe even abandoned. I see Satan whisper untruths in Jesus’ ear: “You are not the Son of God; there is no God; you are all alone in this wasteland, and there is nothing you can do about it.” But the face of Christ reveals no fear. He is not alone, even though he is by himself. He is praying, supported by the Spirit’s power and the Father’s love. Jesus sets his face: He will do what the Father asks; he will spread the good news, come what may. Satan is confused. His hatred and jealousy blind him to God’s presence. He does not see the angel that ministers to Jesus. He gives no thought to the wild beasts close to Jesus, cousins to the ones that greeted him at his birth. (It makes me wonder: Do I recognize God’s assistance in my life? Am I looking for it? Am I praying for it?)

Respond: Christ, I have been tempted too: that God is a fairy-tale creation, that life is without meaning, that in the end I will always be alone. I have even been tempted to find “salvation” in things that I know are not God: power, money and other things, trying to manufacture my own happiness. I am uplifted by the realization that you shared my humanity, that you were tempted as I am, and that you remained in God’s presence. I too, by God’s grace, will resist Satan’s temptations. Jesus, with you I am never really alone, even if I am by myself. I will make the effort to do what St. Paul advises: “Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good” (Rom 12:21).

SECOND SUNDAY OF LENT

READ: Mark 9:2-10

Lent
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REFLECT: Today, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a high mountain, and I follow behind paying close attention to what is happening. Suddenly, Jesus is transfigured; his clothes are dazzling white, shining as bright as the noonday sun. Elijah and Moses appear too, and they are talking with Jesus. I do not know what to think. I can see that Peter, James and John are terrified. They, too, do not understand what is happening, but instead of waiting for an answer they immediately want to do something: Jesus, can we make three tents for you, Elijah, and Moses? They are afraid of not knowing. My journey is marked with fear and unknowing too: I ask myself, am I on the right path; was my prayer for my brother to get a new home answered by you, Lord, or was it a coincidence; will I really live after death? Sometimes instead of remaining with the question and waiting for an answer, I seek a distraction. Who can know any of this anyway? But then I hear you ask Peter, James and John to wait as you walk them down the mountain. The glory of the mountaintop cannot be understood without the journey on the ground or without trust in you. You experienced the same thing, didn’t you Jesus? You walked the earth, were tempted, grew tired and hungry, not to mention exasperated at your followers. But everything made sense Easter morning, and the light of your resurrection has not ceased to shine.

RESPOND: I resolve to follow the pattern of your life, to accept the Lenten journey with all its fears and hardships and mystery, while at the same time believing in your victory and living by your word. I trust that when the time is right, you will let me know what I need to know.

Lent
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THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT

READ: John 2:13-25

REFLECT: I am standing in the Temple of Jerusalem at Passover time, the same temple where every practicing Jew comes to worship at this holy time. The crowd of pilgrims is enough to create confusion. But with all the sellers and their sacrificial animals, and all the moneychangers, the temple is in chaos. Hardly a place to pray. Then, suddenly, as if out of nowhere, there is yelling and screaming, animals running, birds flying, the sound of coins hitting the stone ground. I turn to see with shock Jesus brandishing a whip and driving out the animals and merchants. He, too, is yelling. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” What is he doing? This is not the Jesus I know. Sure, he can speak challenging words, but never have I seen him throw such an angry fit. I am even more shocked when no one tries to stop him. They simply ask, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” He is simply playing the prophet, they seem to think, and he is trying to make a point. In fact, most in the crowd seem grateful for the diversion from the monotony of fulfilling their obligatory worship. Jesus tries to shake them out of their indifference by saying he is the true temple, the real presence of God in the world. But most of the people return to their routines — except the leaders. The leaders care little for Jesus, but they do care for their power and authority, and they sense Jesus encroaching on their territory. They begin to plot his murder. Taking the whole scene in, I begin to think about my own worship and openness to Jesus. Do I go through the motions, obeying all the rules but never making the effort to really listen to Jesus? And when he speaks a word that challenges what I think I am entitled to, do I remove him from that area of my life?

RESPOND: Lord, this season of Lent is your gift to me that I might recognize my sins and change by your grace. Help me to follow you closely, and when I grow indifferent or turn away, I beg that you overturn a few tables in my life — if necessary — to bring me back to you.

How Long is Lent ... Really?
Our period of Lent is, in fact, not 40 days. What’s up? Well, 40 days is a traditional number used in the past. Our numbering emphasizes two important intentions. The first was emphasized by the ancients as well: to celebrate all Sundays — the day of the Lord’s resurrection — as feast days, even during the penitential season of Lent and, therefore, not counted as part of the 40 days. For this reason, fasting and penance may be suspended on Sundays if the person chooses. The second intention is to mark the time between Palm Sunday and the sacred Triduum as a distinct, more intense, period of preparation for Easter.

FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT

READ: John 3:14-21

Lent
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REFLECT: Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews (cf Jn 3:1), has come to see Jesus, but he comes at night so as not to be seen by others. Nicodemus is clearly drawn to Jesus, but he does not commit fully, just in case things go awry (one has to take care of oneself after all). I remember that I read about Nicodemus during the season of Lent, and at a moment when the Church is much closer to the glorious celebration of Easter. For this reason, the Fourth Sunday of Lent is also called Laetare Sunday, or Rejoice Sunday. The Gospel passage from John proclaims the good news of salvation: “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but might have eternal life.” What if it was me sitting with Jesus, wanting to know for sure that he is the one, that what he says is true? Like Nicodemus, I have heard Jesus’ words, I have heard of his miracles, and I know people who have surrendered to his lordship. Jesus says he must be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. I know that Jesus is talking about his death. I also know by faith, right now as I pray, that Jesus has risen. Witnesses have proclaimed this truth from the moment they encountered the risen Lord. Is there any reason to delay accepting the full light of Jesus’ words, to let them dwell richly within me and to produce the good fruit of faith, hope and love?

RESPOND: Lord, let your light break upon me and guide me through every darkness that obscures me from following your path. Help me to live my faith unafraid of the opinions of others. May I never forget that I cannot save myself; I need to be saved by you.

FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT

READ: John 12:20-33

Lent
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REFLECT: On this last Sunday before Holy Week and the Sacred Triduum, Jesus speaks more openly about the death he will die. He has been preparing intensely in love to offer himself to the Father for the salvation of the human race from their sins and death. I see that he is just arriving in Jerusalem for the Passover feast, and a great crowd welcome him by laying palm branches before him and shouting Hosannah. I notice some Greeks, too, who have traveled to the city as well. They ask Philip for a meeting with Jesus. But Jesus sets his face to the task ahead: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” I know Jesus says this not only for himself, but also for everyone interested in following him. Moreover, as I have practiced penance during the weeks of Lent and approached the Lord in prayer each day, I have experienced a sharper attentiveness to God’s presence. I am more aware of my brothers and sisters, and that God wants me to love them as he loves me. Not every day has been full of blessings. Some have been long and silent. Praying with the word of God has both comforted and challenged me, but I grasp better the wisdom of Jesus’ words: there is no resurrection without death, no fruit if the seed does not yield itself to dirt, and I cannot follow Jesus without dying to myself. I remember thinking at times that being a disciple of Jesus would mean constant joy and happiness. Of course, Jesus never says this anywhere. I have noticed that as I try to follow him and to yield to the inspiration of his spirit, a sense of peace abides in me, even during difficulties. Jesus experienced this too; he was not without troubles as he walked the earth: temptations from Satan, misunderstandings by his disciples, murderous plots from his enemies, and even the feeling of being abandoned by his Father. But through it all, Jesus remained fixed on his goal, as he says in today’s passage: “I am troubled now. Yet what should I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour.”

RESPOND: Jesus, I will make the effort, with your grace, to remain fixed on you during any hour of anguish I experience and especially at the hour of my death.

Lent
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PALM SUNDAY, HOLY WEEK, THE TRIDUUM

The Fifth Sunday of Lent closes the first part of the Lenten season. Palm Sunday, Holy Week and the Sacred Triduum — which includes the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday and the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday — are distinct seasons within Lent. The Church, by setting apart Holy Week and the Triduum, signals to us that we have entered a more intense period of preparation; so close are we now to the Easter joy. Therefore, an intensification of our Lenten practice is appropriate. As we have been immersing ourselves in the word of God in personal prayer throughout Lent, imagining ourselves walking and talking with Jesus, we can now join our brothers and sisters in communal prayer by celebrating the Sacred Triduum at our local parish. Let us arrange our schedules now so that we can be at each of the celebrations. The liturgies of these days invite us to participate directly in the saving mysteries; each is replete with the words and actions of Jesus as well as the people following him.

We are invited not simply to remember the saving events as if they belonged merely to the past, but to actively participate in them, to realize them in our lives, as God makes them really present in our midst. Jesus still washes the feet of his disciples. We are his hands. Jesus is still crucified when we choose freely to sin. Do we understand this? Jesus still forgives us by offering his body and blood for our salvation. How do we receive this gift? Our Lenten preparation did not make us ready to celebrate just one religious feast on one day of the year, and it certainly was not merely for our own benefit. We are followers of Christ every day, every moment of our lives. We have come to believe that Jesus is Lord, that he truly died and rose from the dead, that he sends his Spirit to guide us still. This is good news to share, so as he said to his first followers who witnessed his risen glory, Jesus says to you and me: “Go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all I have commanded you. And I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:19-20).

Online Resources: Stations of the Cross
Stations of the Cross
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Along with reading and reflecting on Scripture this Lenten season, Our Sunday Visitor has a wealth of resources online to help walk the faithful through Christ’s Passion and Death. Below are excerpts from articles on the Stations of the Cross found at OSV.com, which can help make our Lent more meaningful.

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