Reflection on Lent for the Pallottines
Lent is an old English word meaning springtime. For Europeans and North Americans the long, severe, cold weather comes to an end with the coming of spring. From the cold earth and leafless trees spring tiny green shoots. Life once again blossoms. Poets sing in joyful anticipation “If winter comes, can spring be far behind.”
The season of Lent consists of 40 days before Easter of fasting, prayer and penitence. It came to be the pastoral and liturgical preparation of catechumens for baptism at the Easter vigil.
The liturgy commemorates the forty days Jesus spent in the desert.
Lent is the penitential season for Christians. A shadow of gloom descends on the churches, the dominant colour is violet, the prevailing mood is one of sorrow, the principal devotion is the Way of the Cross. Somehow Lent has lost its meaning for modern youth and people in general. It does not grab them. Yet it must not be said that fasting, prayer and penitence, the old truths, have no value, are not attractive and therefore need to be abolished. Rather we must endeavour to recover the real meaning of Lent and give it a fresh meaning.
Lent is a quest, is a search, it is a time to ask: what is worth dying for; what is worth living for? The liturgy dares to call Lent a joyful season. The gospel reading paradoxically has Jesus telling us: put on bright faces, smile!
To understand the paradox, we must go to the time when the Israelites were wrestling with this problem who is this God who was directing their lives and destiny. We go Exodus chapter 33. There we read that Moses once again asks God to disclose His nature as well as the fullness of His name. He received an answer, which left him dissatisfied. “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious.” Moses then asks to see God’s face. He is told that only his “back” can be seen. “You see there is a place near Me. Station yourself on the rock, and as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back, but My face must not be seen.”
What is meaning of this episode ? The Israelites could not perceive God directly in the present moment. But if they thought a little deeply, reflected a little more carefully, they would remember many past experiences of compassion, pity and mercy in their lives. They would recall how these happened unexpectedly and were altogether unasked for. The Israelites would remember their deliverance from the hands of the Egyptians. They would remember how when they had nothing to eat and drink in the desert the Lord provided. Looking back on these events they would perceive the hand of loving and caring God. This is the meaning of Moses looking at God from behind. The Israelites would see that God indeed was with them in their struggles. He was God-with-them, God in their history. The memory of these events they cherished and celebrated.
The Exodus and the Passover which commemorated the event, was not only a cherished celebration of a past event, it was something more for them. It was an expression of faith and hope that God is still committed to them. Inspite of the fact that they were insignificant, faithless and the most wretched on the earth. God was not only committed to them but continues to be with them even today in Jesus Christ. This is our foundational faith. This is the paradigm on which rests the Paschal Mystery: the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
This is the meaning of Lent, put simply: Jesus saw it worthwhile to die and live that we may have life and life in all its abundance.
Sin is the big obstacle. Sin harms life, saps at its foundations and eventually destroys life. Sorrow for sin is a universal concern of all people. Millions of Hindus bathe at the place in the Ganges where the gods spilled a drop of nectar, for the forgiveness of their sins. Millions of Muslims go to Mecca on pilgrimage once in their life time. Millions of Jews go to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem for the same purpose. So do millions of Catholics flock to Pilgrim Centres all over the world blessed by the appearance of Our Lady.
All these religious traditions signify the renewal of faith of people, their commitment to God and repentance of their sins.
Yet on Ash Wednesday we heard it said by Jesus very clearly and loudly: avoid ostentatious external behaviour. Public religion may not be religion at all. Rather Jesus urges us to become the heart that is so generous that is reckless in giving: the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing. In short the Gospel is telling me: to become what my public action says I am. Don’t be hypocrites: doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. All the almsgiving, all the fasting, all the praying in the world will not be real, will not mean a thing UNLESS it first changes our hearts . . . this is true repentance, this is what Lent is all about.
This is what Christianity is all about. If we are to wish to put it into a nutshell. Jesus is the sacrament of the Father. [1 Jn 1:3 ]Jesus is the human face of God. The Church is the historical face of Jesus, that is, the Church is sacrament of Jesus. The Sacraments of the Church are the encounter of God’s loving action with us through signs of freedom, deliverance and salvation which bring God’s love to us here and now.
Sacraments bring to fulfillment in Jesus all that God promised in the past. Jesus mediates God’s promises in his life, death and resurrection. The sacraments not only signify the invisible presence of God; they CAUSE that which they signify.
Our way to God is God’s way to us – God is mediated to us through Jesus and Jesus wishes that it be mediated through a communion, through a community of faith, through the Church. This is the spirit of Christianity. This is the spirit of Lent which we are embarking upon.