Another Lent is upon us. On Ash Wednesday we go to church and receive the ashes on our foreheads as a reminder of our mortality and our sinfulness. We are again asked to use this holy season to evaluate our lives and see what course corrections may be needed. As a youngster I didn't like Lent. It was always a time when we were asked to "give something up." And it was usually something we liked to do or have very much (candy, movies, etc.). As I have grown, however, I have come to realize the gift that the season of Lent is for us - a chance to make a "40 day retreat" with the Lord in preparation for remembering the great events of his passion, death and resurrection.
This past weekend's Scripture readings (the 9th Sunday of Ordinary Time) had to do with building our spiritual life and journey on a solid rock foundation. In the homily delivered at my parish, my longtime friend, Fr. Jim Mackey, spoke to us about building this foundation and reminded us that as Lent was coming in a few days we could use that holy season to stablize that foundation in three ways: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. I would just like to share a few thoughts about each of these.
Prayer: We are encouraged to "pray always" and not just at this time of the year. But Lent does give us the opportunity to perhaps strengthen our prayer life. There are so many ways in which we can enter into this spirit of prayer during Lent: more frequent attendance at Mass (during the week when possible), reading the Scriptures of the day, finding daily reflections on the various websites that can be found on the Internet among others. There are also many things to pray for: certainly peace in the world particularly in those areas affected by war and turmoil, for freedom from oppression for those people living in countries where freedom is abridged, for the safety of the men and women in our armed forces, for our families and for good health. Each of us can find those areas for which prayer is needed and this season gives us the chance to increase our prayer life for whatever intentions we have.
Fasting: The Church asks us to abstain from meat on two important days in Lent - Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Many dioceses also request their members to continue the age-old practice of abstaining from meat on the other Fridays in Lent. As I was growing up meatless Fridays were the norm not to be changed until the Second Vatican Council when we were asked to voluntarily practice fasting and abstinence instead of feeling compelled by the notion of sin if we did not. Obviously abstaining from meat does not become a hardship if one enjoys in its place a fine lobster dinner (unless you are seriously allergic to shell fish). Then it is not really a sacrifice - the abstaining from meat is just a reminder that our Lord gave of himself wholeheartedly by going to the cross for our salvation.
It is interesting what can happen even economically by this practice of abstinence. I am reminded of a story told by a priest friend of what happened one Ash Wednesday in Washington when he was a seminarian. A group of seminarians went to McDonald's for lunch and, of course, ordered the fish sandwich. They were told to go to a special line which took up a good part of the restaurant. His comment was: "That day we brought McDonald's to their knees." I'm sure that places like McDonald's realize that they had better stock up with more fish at this time of the year.
Fasting or limiting our food intake is asked of people between certain ages (not the very young or very old). While it may be good for our health and help us slim down, the primary reason for asking for this sacrifice is to remind us again of what God has done for us and how we can benefit from giving up something and not becoming too attached to any one thing. Other ways of fasting, of course, can include giving up things we like very much (certain types of entertainment, smoking, etc.). We can also consider giving up some habits which may have become a part of us - do we tend to gossip; do we tend to put ourselves forward rather than giving way to others, etc. All of these are ways we can use this holy season to prepare ourselves for the great celebration of Easter.
May we then use this sacred time to come closer to our God and rejoice in the salvation won for us by our savior Jesus Christ. May God grant you a blessed Lent!