The phrase “Lenten journey” has become ubiquitous in contemporary Catholicism, but for once, AmChurchSpeak makes an important point: Lent is a journey—a journey to Calvary with the Lord and an opportunity to reflect on how well we’ve each picked up the cross daily (as instructed in Luke 9: 23) and followed him.
The day-by-day quality of the 40 Days hit home during the best Lent I ever spent: Lent 2011, when I made the Lenten station church pilgrimage in Rome with the Pontifical North American College. Every morning, I’d be up at 5:15 a.m. and off in the dawn’s early light to participate in Mass at the “station” appointed for that Lenten day—a tradition dating back to the mid-first millennium, when the Bishop of Rome led a daily procession through the city and celebrated Mass at a particular “station” church honoring the city’s martyrs.
But as splendid as that experience of Rome was, those daily walks—which often take the pilgrim to great churches far from the beaten tourist track—weren’t the heart of the Lenten journey for me. The deeper experience came later, when I returned to the North American College and wrote a commentary on each day’s liturgical texts: the readings from Mass and those in the breviary’s Office of Readings. Three and a half decades of scribbling have taught me that I best get inside a text and plumb its meaning when I write about it. That’s true of novels; it’s true of history and biography; and it’s most certainly true of those readings from the Bible and the fathers of the Church that fill each day of Lent with riches that are best mined slowly.
The unfolding of those riches is another day-by-day thing and becomes most intense during the latter part of Lent, when the first selection in the Office of Readings is from the Letter to the Hebrews and the second Mass reading is from the Gospel of John.
For two weeks, the Letter to the Hebrews draws on images from the Old Testament to introduce us to that “great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God:” a mediator between God and humanity who “has been tempted as we are” and with whom we can “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” [Heb 4: 14-16]. Here, the biblical author writes, we find that “great cloud of witnesses” in whose company we are enabled to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us” [Heb 12: 1] Here is “Mt. Zion … the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” to which we are brought through the mediation of Jesus, and where we join “innumerable angels in festive gathering” [Heb 12: 22].
Complementing this extraordinary vision of our Christian destiny are the Lenten daily Mass readings from the Gospel of John, in which Jesus is sovereign even on earth. Throughout his Passion—indeed, in setting in motion the dynamics that lead to the Passion—it is Jesus who is in charge of events, Jesus who drives the drama forward, Jesus who tells Pilate who is really in charge of history. To walk this journey day by day is to experience the fullness of what it means to meet the Lamb of God who, by taking the sins of the world on himself in obedience to the Father’s will, empowers each of his brethren to pick up their daily cross and follow him without fear.
With the help of art historian Elizabeth Lev and my photographer-son, Stephen, I’ve tried to share what I learned and wrote during that “best Lent” of my life in “Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches” (Basic Books). “Roman Pilgrimage” is meant to be read a day at a time (the eBook edition is especially conducive to reflection, as its all-color photo format makes a visually stunning complement to the text and “puts” the reader in Rome). Whatever the format, though, may “Roman Pilgrimage” be a fitting companion on many Lenten journeys.