Monday, March 26, 2012

(77) The Lenten Journey: What It's All About

        On Ash Wednesday our parish church was packed, standing room only. That was great! But we won't see some of those people until Easter. Attending Mass every Sunday without fail is much more important than only coming on Ash Wednesday.  Click on for a one minute segment of a beautiful talk by Matthew Leonard on Lent. 

       True, the blessing with ashes is a beautiful sacramental and a wonderful tradition. In our presence after Mass on Fat Tuesday morning the day before, our pastor, Father Thomas Hamm burned the palms of previous Palm Sundays. Fat Tuesday is the traditional day for Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Mobile, Rio in Brazil, etc. as one last fling before the forty days of prayer, fast, and almsgiving. By no means are the festivities an official Church observance. The next day, Ash Wednesday, the Mardi Gras partying is transformed into Lent, the somber period of penance and repentance. 

       The Gospel of the First Sunday of Lent relates that Christ spent forty days of prayer and fasting in the desert as a retreat in preparation for His public ministry. We could also spend a day or two on retreat in preparation for a new phase in our lives.......ordination, marriage, college, graduate school, first job after graduation, a new career changing job or mission, etc. In any event, a short annual retreat, day of recollection, or day of renewal is an excellent practice for any Catholic striving to become holy and a true man or woman of God. Lent also consists of forty days of prayer, fasting, and alms giving, not counting Sundays.

       Temptations. Interesting is that Christ was tempted by the devil in the same way as we are (Matthew 4:1-11). Temptations revolve around four worldly aspirations: Pleasure, wealth, power, and honor (prestige). “Turn these stones into bread” purports to satisfy pleasure in relieving hunger; “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down (from the tower)” appeals to honor for such a public miracle. “All these I shall give to you (all the kingdoms of the world), if you will prostrate yourself and worship me” supposedly promises wealth and power. Do we not make idols out of money, power, pleasure, and prestige? Do we become slaves to any of them? In other words, do we become addicted to them? And we can't simply blame it all on the devil. So often temptations come from within ourselves, from our own selfishness, from our own weaknesses.

       In the Old Testament penitents would wear sack cloth and sit in a heap of ashes. On Ash Wednesday, the priest blesses and marks each person on the forehead with the ashes in the form of a cross saying: "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel." Traditionally, the priest said: "Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return" as a reminder of mortality and it's time to repent. Clearly, the focus is upon repentance and conversion. i.e., turning away from sin and turning back to Christ, to follow Him, and to become closer to Him. 

       Prayer. During Lent, we tend to focus more on giving up things.......sweets, movies, etc. That is the negative. We should place a much greater emphasis upon doing. That is the positive. Prayer is basically conversation with God. It brings us closer to Him through adoration, praise, thanksgiving, and petition. Prayer can also take the form of Bible reading. A great lenten sacrifice is to read just one chapter of the Bible a day from the New Testament. That only takes about 15 minutes. There's also other spiritual reading possibilities. More frequent attendance at Daily Mass and lenten devotions such as Stations of the Cross often followed by Benediction, and Eucharistic Adoration are fabulous lenten sacrifices. 

Christ prayed and fasted for 40 days in the desert in preparation for His great mission to teach us how to live and to save us from our sins on the Cross on Mt. Calvary.  We should do much of the same during the 40 days of Lent.

        Fasting is really no big deal. Before Vatican II, Catholics were required to fast every day except Sunday which is not counted among the forty days. Today, Catholics between the ages of 19 through 59 are required to fast only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. It consists of only one full meal and the other two combined should not exceed the full meal. Furthermore, there is no snacking between meals. That's really great for weight watchers as is giving up sweets and could be done every day during Lent. Sweets never taste as good as it does on Easter Sunday. Giving up tobacco and alcohol has all kinds of health benefits. Giving up TV, video games, partying, etc. are great time savers and forms of fasting. Penance promotes self discipline. You can't conquer the world until you conquer yourself first. Penance also makes restitution for our sins. 

      Almsgiving is not simply giving money to charity. It's also good works.......volunteering in the Community and in the Church; simply helping people in need; doing favors for people; opening our hearts to others, listening to people who need a friend, visiting the sick, the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, etc. There's so much truth in the old saying: “Charity begins at home”. It's easy to be nice and courteous to strangers, but not so easy with our loved ones who sometimes are annoying, insensitive, blunt, rude, discourteous, and want their own way. Little acts of love go a long way. 

       Lent is a time for self-examination and developing virtues. What are things that I have to work on? How can I become a better person? How can I become closer to God? How can I become a true man or woman of God? The focus is upon holiness and eternity. To enter Heaven, one must be holy. We can become holy either on Earth or in Purgatory which may take many years. It's a choice each of us must make. That's what Lent is all about. May all of you have a very fruitful Lent.

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