In the calendar for the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite and for communities of the Anglican Usage, the Church offers three preparatory Sundays leading up to Lent (Septuagesima, Sexagesima, Quinqugesima – that is, 70, 60 and 50 days before Easter); the Byzantines also have a pre-Lenten observance.
I think there is a certain good psychology or inner logic here, lest someone be caught off guard, unprepared for the great penitential season, taken unawares – and thus wasteful of precious days trying to determine what his program of action could, should or would be – often enough done around nine o’clock on the evening of Ash Wednesday!
So, here’s the advance warning: Lent is coming. Of course, if the Church adopted the lingo of Madison Avenue, she likewise would say: “Just sixty more days until Easter!”
Fifty years ago, Ash Wednesday would have been a day on which some extravagant resolutions would have been made and would have been approached with no small degree of dread. This past week I re-read John R. Powers’ rather funny and mildly irreverent The Last Catholic in America (1982), in which there is a chapter on Lent in the “old days.” I’d like to share some lines with you:
In Catholicism, the name of the game is pain. The more one suffers, the higher he gets in Heaven. . . . Although pain was a year-round pastime in St. Bastion Parish, the apex of agony was those forty days before Easter: the 960 hours of Lent when the pain of simply surviving in St. Bastion’s fell far short of the sacrifices necessary for salvation. About the only people who kind of looked forward to Lent were the fat Catholics.
In spite of the author’s exaggeration and humor, those of us who grew up in the Church at that time can recall a great deal of the situation he described. However, Lent is an important part of Christian life. It may have been poorly explained in the past, or poorly understood, or poorly observed, but the purpose was – and is – good and necessary: We need a time to examine our lives, critically. The sacrifices we make should lead us to a deeper awareness of the meaning of the Christian life and our failures in this regard; that awareness should bring us to repentance, a change of heart, and a new direction in our lives.
More frequent prayer, fasting and careful study of Scripture or theology during Lent are geared to make the individual Christian a better person, one who is easier to get along with. Very often some Christians forget that Christianity is not simply between me and God, but that other people are also involved. Jesus reminds us that when we neglect our brother, we neglect Him. To go through the motions of religion without concrete action on behalf of the needy is a scandal, prompting Gandhi to remark: “I love Christ; I do not love Christians.”
And so, use prayer and fasting as ways to help you grow in holiness. Concentrate your efforts on an attempt to love one particularly hard-to-love person. Zero in on one especially besetting, damning fault. Use traditional Lenten practices to heighten your sensitivity, for that is what they are intended to do. For example, by fasting I choose to be hungry to know firsthand what it is like to have to be hungry. Through the Stations of the Cross, I experience spiritually and psychologically what Jesus experienced both physically and psychologically and the pain He suffers even today when His brothers and sisters in the human family endure pain and hardship. By making a special effort to participate more frequently and more fully in the Eucharist, I declare my readiness to hear God’s Word and to be challenged by it to work for His Kingdom; at the same time, I receive within myself the proof of Christ’s undying love for me, and I am encouraged to love others as I have been loved.
The goal of Lent is nothing less than the call to be divine in very human things. I should not be interested in counting up rosaries or Stations or Masses, but I should be interested in how these devotions will enable me to become more the person that God wants me to be. Our goal, then, is at once simple and complex – to become so much like Christ the Man that we will eventually be taken up into His divine life. After all, that is what we rather boldly ask for at Mass every day, is it not – as the priest prays during the commingling of the water and wine: “May we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled Himself to share in our humanity”?
Lent, then, is not a time designed to lose weight or to take on such a major personality overhaul that you are assured of failure, or that you become even harder to live with. Lent is a time to look at yourself in relation to God and the people around you and to see if you are satisfied with the quality of those relationships. If improvement is possible, now is the time to work out a manageable program of personal improvement; now is the time to die to all that makes love difficult or even impossible in your life.
If you put forth a good effort and really try to go through forty days of self-examination and self-improvement (always under the power of God’s grace), Easter will be a day of joy because you will have had the experience of dying with Christ and also rising with Him.
This is just what the late and beloved Pope Benedict XVI highlighted in the conclusion of his Lenten message for 2011. The Holy Father wrote:
In synthesis, the Lenten journey, in which we are invited to contemplate the Mystery of the Cross, is meant to reproduce within us “the pattern of his death” (Ph 3: 10), so as to effect a deep conversion in our lives; that we may be transformed by the action of the Holy Spirit, like St. Paul on the road to Damascus; that we may firmly orient our existence according to the will of God; that we may be freed of our egoism, overcoming the instinct to dominate others and opening us to the love of Christ. The Lenten period is a favorable time to recognize our weakness and to accept, through a sincere inventory of our life, the renewing grace of the Sacrament of Penance, and walk resolutely towards Christ.
On Sexagesima Sunday in 1848, St. John Henry Newman gave some very practical, pastoral advice to his congregation, advice still worth heeding:
And if you are conscious that your hearts are hard, and are desirous that they should be softened, do not despair. All things are possible to you, through God’s grace. Come to Him for the will and the power to do that to which He calls you. He never forsakes anyone who calls upon Him. He never puts any trial on a man but He gives him grace to overcome it. Do not despair then; nay do not despond, even though you do come to Him, yet are not at once exalted to overcome yourselves. He gives grace by little and little. It is by coming daily into His presence, that by degrees we find ourselves awed by that presence and able to believe and obey Him.
Therefore if anyone desires illumination to know God’s will as well as strength to do it, let him come to Mass daily, if he possibly can. At least let him present himself daily before the Blessed Sacrament, and, as it were, offer his heart to his Incarnate Saviour, presenting it as a reasonable offering to be influenced, changed and sanctified under the eye and by the grace of the Eternal Son. And let him every now and then through the day make some short prayer or ejaculation, to the Lord and Saviour, and again to His Blessed Mother, the immaculate most Blessed Virgin Mary, or again to his guardian Angel, or to his patron saint. Let him now and then collect his mind and place himself, as if in Heaven, in the presence of God; as if before God’s throne; let him fancy he sees the All-Holy Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.
These are the means by which, with God’s grace, he will be able in course of time to soften his heart – not all at once, but by degrees; not by his own power or wisdom, but by the grace of God blessing his endeavour. Thus it is that saints have begun. They have begun by these little things, and so become at length saints. They were not saints all at once, but by little and little. And so we, who are not saints, must still proceed by the same road; by lowliness, patience, trust in God, recollection that we are in His presence, and thankfulness for His mercies.
And now, my Brethren, though I have said but a little on a large subject, I have said enough, not enough for the subject, but enough for you, enough for you to get a lesson from. May you lay it to heart, as I am sure you do and will, may you gain a blessing from it. . . .
Dear readers, if you use the next few days well and wisely to forge an intelligent and spiritually mature Lenten program, Ash Wednesday will not catch unawares – and, it will not be out of place for me to wish you, “Happy Lent!”
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