The Appointed Task of Lent
Why should you receive ashes? Why should you bestir yourself to carry out Lent over the next six and a half weeks? Again!
These questions do not evoke a single answer, but I would like to propose one that fits current preoccupations. At. St. Vincent’s we have begun an extended reflection in the Sunday Bulletin on what it means to go to Mass. We have developed the position that we go because it is a task assigned to us by Christ, along with the promise that God will respond to our human discipline of showing up by being present Himself. In accord with His own nature He will transform whatever we bring to the event. As He transforms the bread and wine immeasurably, so he lays hold of and gives back, with His stamp, the joys, sorrows, apologies, and praises we bring to the Mass and lay upon the altar alongside the offered life of Christ.
In the same way, the Christian People have come to understand that Lent is a work assigned to them. The realization is instinctive. Look around you at the numbers of people who show up to “get my ashes.” Receiving a cross of dirt on the forehead, all kinds of people choose, without words, to do public penance. In Lent, the entire Church assumes the posture once assigned only to the most notorious sinners: we proclaim publicly that we do not yet live fully the life of the Gospel. So the task of Lent is to do penance and to do it in public, with the group. But what is Penance?
The simplest answer is that penance comprises acts of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving that we undertake in satisfaction of sin. If we leave it at that, it is easy to come away with the impression that penance is like paying a fine. I binge on sweets too often and so I sentence myself to giving up chocolate for forty days. When I come to Easter I have that nice “paid up” feeling. On Easter Sunday I will gorge on Cadbury Eggs with some sense of entitlement. Consider another way of looking at penance proposed by a prayer of the Church of Milan.
You refresh us with bodily food, but also with food for the spirit, so that we may live not by bread alone, but by the life giving nourishment of your every word. Thus, not only through eating but also through fasting, we are sustained and fed. As you strengthen the body with food and drink, so through abstinence and works of love you fortify the soul. You have consecrated for us this holy fasting season, to bring us health of mind and body, so that we may obtain through abstinence the joy of returning to your paradise, from which we were exiled because of our greed. (We Give You Thanks and Praise; The Ambrosian Eucharistic Prefaces, Trans. Alan Griffiths, Sheed and Ward, Franklin, WI, 2000, p. 62)
Here, penance makes us more alive. I give up chocolate to become less needful of it, not to prove my will power, but to stop using chocolate, or its equivalent, to numb the deeper longings of the soul, where God seeks to meet me. Thus the deeper fasting task of Lent is to feel hunger in the body so as to befriend the hunger in the soul, in which I will also find the longing for God himself. Likewise, when I pray I overcome the numbing effect of busy-ness, and when I give alms I become more alive because more free from the weight of my own goods.
I would like to propose a very non-exclusive list of ways to fulfill the Lenten task.
Come to daily Mass, and experience Christ’s Eucharistic nourishment and refreshment as a continuous gift.
Come to confession, and find the freedom of taking responsibility.
Come to our Wednesday Holy Hour and experience the support of shared silence.
Join us for Stations of the Cross after the 5:30 Mass on Fridays. How does the Lord’s Passion speak to the heart this year?
Join us for our parish Lenten retreat on Saturday, March 19. It begins at 9:30AM and lasts through the 12:10 Mass. Spend time in our beautiful church, and let its art serve prayer. If you would like to join us please respond to Yvonne Scally at the Priory.
At St. Vincent’s we are blessed to have a large number of people preparing to enter the Church at Easter. Accompany them in prayer, particularly at the “Scrutinies” to be celebrated at the 5:30 Mass on the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Sundays of Lent.
Join our fine choir, under the direction of Dr. Mark Bani, for their Lenten concert on Sunday April 3 at 3PM. Through the music of Handel’s Messiah let Scripture speak in a new way.
Make a gift to the Stewardship Appeal of the Archdiocese of New York. By supporting clergy formation, care of elderly priests and religious, and the outreach of Catholic Charities, become more a part of the Church.
Fast. Without endangering health in any way, try to sustain the feeling of hunger for a time, and pray in that circumstance. Observe abstinence (from meat) on the Fridays of Lent, and on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday abstain and fast. Note that fasting is soulful nourishment only if taken with common sense. Factors of age, health and workload must be considered.
Practice silence. Try being in your own room without television, radio, internet, or book. See what comes to fill the void, and invite God to join you there.
May all your Lenten endeavors come back to you many times over, and may you discover that this is actually a season of great joy.