Talking to parishioners, it transpires that many of them have a great love for the season of Lent. The crowds that packed the Oratory church on Ash Wednesday, even though there is no precept of obligation to do so, and the impressive size of the procession around the Stations of the Cross on Friday evenings, suggest that penance and mortification still exercise a significant hold on the Christian imagination. Whatever Freudian psychologists might assume, this is not because we are suffering from psychotic morbidity, or at least not most of us. Rather it is because these forty days, if we make a real effort to observe them, are spiritually liberating and refreshing. If, through our Lenten observances, we allow the great vessel that is the Church to transport us through this season of the liturgical calendar as active participants rather than as mere spectators, then we shall be well prepared to experience the joy and the power of Easter when the bells ring the Gloria back in at the Easter Vigil.
When we were baptised we died to the old Adam within us. As the waters closed over our heads, we descended into the Tomb to be buried with Our Lord and Saviour. Moments later, emerging from those waters, we were raised from the dead. This is the supernatural reality of Baptism – we die and are buried with Christ, and the life of the Resurrection is poured into our hearts. And in our Baptism we receive the vocation to keep dying to ourselves in this life so that the life of Our Risen Lord might take ever greater possession of our souls. This, of course, is one of the primary purposes of Lent – dying to ourselves through self-denial.
We might imagine that this is a thought that the weird and wonderful creature whom Teutonic theologisers like to call ‘Modern Man’ would find off-putting, even grotesque. But on the 1st January many of our secular-minded contemporaries will have made resolutions aimed at self-improvement. The difference is that most of these secular resolutions will have been focused on self – self-improvement through losing weight, self-improvement through obsessive control over the quantities of vitamins, proteins, carbohydrates entering their digestive systems, self-improvement through the toning of the body beautiful at the gym, self-improvement through ‘empowerment’ and ‘affirming’. Bookshops these days are full of material on how the reader can transform himself into Superman through the triumph of mind over matter.
The purpose of Lent, in contrast to all of this, is to replace self with God, and to put the service of God in our neighbour at the centre of the frame. If we are thoughtful in the way that we market what our religion has to offer, however, then perhaps we can take advantage of the modern mania for self-improvement. After all, the practice of the Catholic religion, as exemplified in the Lenten observances of fasting, prayer and almsgiving, offers the ultimate holistic approach to self-improvement available on this planet. It is spiritual detox par excellence.
When people talk about their Lenten resolutions, it’s quite common to hear something like “I find it more useful to take something up, rather than to give something up.” Our initial response should be gladness that they are doing anything at all. But taking something up and giving something up are not necessarily mutually exclusive. During Lent we are supposed to do both. The particular observances we resolve to assume are really tokens of virtues which we should cultivating throughout our lives. In fasting, we renounce legitimate pleasures in order to unite ourselves with Our Lord’s hunger in the desert, but also to loosen the hold that created goods hold over our appetites. In taking up extra devotions, we cultivate living in God’s presence and open the channels of communication as wide as possible so that He is able to communicate His divine life to us in abundance. In giving alms, we recognise and pay homage to the image of God that is emblazoned on our neighbour’s soul.
And the ‘secret’ of keeping a good Lent? It is the same ‘secret’ that animates every aspect of our lives as Christians: charity. The Old and New Testaments make it clear that without charity our sacrifices become empty gestures and our prayers just prattle. It is charity that makes our other observances pleasing to God. And in this area of charity, the Gospel makes stringent demands. We are to love not only our neighbour, but also our enemy. We might well ask how can we be expected to love someone who has harmed us without any sign of repentance, and even to love an enemy who persecutes us without ceasing. First of all we have to try to understand how God loves us. Whenever we sin we make ourselves enemies of Christ, contributing to His suffering during His Passion. And yet He sees in us a potential for great goodness and beauty of soul, offering us His forgiveness even before we ask for it. Indeed, our repentance is the fruit of the grace which He extends to us before we have turned to Him. To love our enemies, we must begin by praying for them. Our prayer should be not only for their conversion, but that God will bless them in every way He sees fit. That way, we begin to grow in charity, whatever emotions might be assailing us.
As Holy Week approaches, it is likely that we shall have failed in the resolutions that we made on Ash Wednesday. The humility that it takes to acknowledge our failures and ask forgiveness is very precious to God. It is an essential prerequisite in the foundations of all the blessings He wishes to build in our lives. So we should renew our resolutions now, and pray for the grace to keep them well so that when Easter comes we shall be well prepared to participate in the joy of the Resurrection. We should also keep in mind that when Easter does arrive, God will not be measuring our waistlines to see how many pounds we have shed. What He is looking for is actually expansion. He wants to find hearts that have expanded in generosity and charity.
Fr Julian Large