Beginning the pilgrimage of Lent
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Once again we begin our spiritual pilgrimage through the season of Lent. I hope you have been able to use the last two weeks well, in prayerful preparation for this journey, letting the Holy Spirit guide you in taking up your Lenten discipline and sacrifices, and in your program of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Now we are ready to embark, laying aside worldly things and setting out to meet our Lord Jesus Christ, Risen Lord and Savior.
Yesterday, we began the journey by taking up our cross, marked clearly in ashes upon our foreheads. The ashes teach us about worldly vanity. Creatures cannot save us, neither from fear nor harm nor, especially, death. No matter how good – and so many of God’s created things are truly good, and necessary – still they cannot do what only God can do: give us perfect love, and the gift of eternal life. All creatures end as ashes, in this sense; only God is eternal. Therefore, we practice bearing the cross, the way of life. We do not reject what is good in creation, but we also look past even that goodness to our final and ultimate good, union with God in Heaven.
We desire to end our life-long pilgrimage there, with Him forever. The ashes of Lent keep us oriented to this goal. Bearing the ashes is a sign our repentance for sins, of our hope for grace and salvation, and of belonging not to the world, but to Christ who saves.
An old-fashioned word for the discipline of Lent is “mortification.” We do, in a sense, want to practice “making dead” in our members. This is not because our bodies, aspirations, appetites, and desires in this life should be killed – they are not evil, although we must admit that we sometimes use them to sin – but because if we do not look past even what is good in them to the greater good of heaven, we will not reach heaven.
The things of the world are sweet and distracting. Sometimes they are sweet and good, like a fine family dinner or a well-earned vacation. Sometimes they are sweet and wicked, like every alluring temptation and habitual sin. But, even when we experience God’s generous mercy in this life, if all our attention is focused on achieving worldly goods only, have we truly desired to reach heaven?
In order to desire heaven, then, to say “yes” to the ultimate good, we have to say “no,” even just a little bit, to worldly things. Food is good, but to reach heaven, we need to fast a little bit. Money can do much that is good, but to reach heaven, we need to give some of it away. An active and boisterous family is wonderful, but to reach heaven, we need a little time for prayer and silence, also. Mortification, the discipline of Lent, is saying a little bit of “no” to the good things of this life, in order to make God more at the center of our desire.
The discipline of Lent starts with prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Prayer means offering minds and hearts to God, with silence as well as words, listening to him as well as petitioning, adoring him as fully as possible. When we spend time with the Word of God, Jesus Christ in person, in Sacred Scripture and in the most Blessed Sacrament, we start to learn, or to relearn, how to pray. I especially recommend the rosary and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy as a daily commitment, especially during Lent.
Prayer culminates in the sacraments, especially in worthy reception of the Holy Eucharist. To be well prepared to receive Jesus in the Mass, we should spend time reading and reflecting on the scripture readings we will hear proclaimed at Mass. These readings are listed in every edition of The Catholic Globe and are available in any missal and on any number of websites. Everyone can take a few minutes during the week to pray a few times with these passages. Second, we should take a few minutes each day to reflect on how we have and have not lived up to Christ’s high calling. These moments of reflective prayer will seep into us, and help us be closer to our Lord Jesus Christ.
“Fasting” means eating little or no food. “Abstinence” means not eating any meat. The church asks us to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday; a minimal fast means eating only one full meal that day, with two small meals and nothing between meals. Fasting is required of adults aged 18 to 60, unless illness prevents. We must also abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays in Lent. Friday abstinence throughout the year is also spiritually beneficial, and, again this year, I encourage you to try this practice. Lenten abstinence is required of all Catholics aged 14 and older. Some measure of Lenten fast and abstinence is also encouraged, even for those for whom it is not required.
Almsgiving, or charitable giving of one’s resources (time, talent, and treasure) to the needy, is another powerful Lenten training. If you don’t already do so, find a new way to give this year. Perhaps you have a relative or a neighbor who needs more of your time. Perhaps you could find a way to donate something you would otherwise just throw away. If you do already give alms, use this Lent to renew your commitment and your willingness or cheerfulness in giving.
This Lent, let us undertake our journey with a deeper understanding of what is at stake. The pilgrimage of Lent, with its prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, with its discipline and sacrifices and somber character, is a necessary part of our road to Heaven. It joins us to the way of the Cross. We “do Lent,” not because we like to suffer, but precisely because we don’t want to suffer. We want to go to heaven, not to hell, and Lent is part of that road.
Your brother in Christ,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
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