In his Rule, Saint Benedict observes that "the life of a monk ought to a continuous Lent" (from chapter 49). Those words might strike some as harsh, but why is that? Is it because we too quickly associate Lent with ash-smudged foreheads, "giving up" things we generally enjoy, fishy Fridays, and lots talk about guilt and sin?
The insight that we can gain from Saint Benedict's perspective is that the spirit of Lent is something that should permeate our lives every day of the year. And, by saying that, I don't mean the doom-and-gloom that too many associate with this season. Instead, Saint Benedict was saying that our Lenten emphasis on ongoing conversion and covenant is something we should carry with us each day, because conversion and covenant are at the heart of our commitment to follow Christ.
This can only make sense for us today if we try to remember that Lent was originally a 3-day time of fasting and prayer for those who would be baptized at Easter. While this eventually grew into the 40 days we keep today (remember that Sundays are not included in the 40 days of Lent because Sunday can never be a day of penance), the meaning is there for us, as well: Lent is the time when we prepare for the celebration of baptism and the renewal of our baptismal promises. For those in the RCIA process, who are now in the final weeks before they will be baptized at the Easter Vigil, these days are anything but a burden--this is a time of anticipation and joy. But, for the rest of us--who have already been baptized--Lent is often anything but a season of joyful waiting. And yet, each of us will renew our commitment to discipleship on Easter Sunday by recalling our baptismal promises and being sprinkled with holy water. Sadly, most of us miss the connection of this liturgical act and the season of Lent.
In classes and workshops, I often say that Lent is the time to "get back to basics." These are the days to reflect on what it means to be a Christian, to really look at how we are living out our baptismal commitment/covenant, and to begin to take steps to becoming a truer disciple of Jesus. This rarely has anything to do with "giving up" luxury items like chocolate, Facebook, reading fiction. Most of us would benefit more from finding a way to care for the poor, nurture faith in our families, and pray more. The "giving up" of Lent is only intended to remind us that there are things we all desire and hunger for, but these days are also a time when we should be asking ourselves if we're hungering for the right things. In this sense, Lent is the most "grown up" of all the seasons of the Church year. Lent is the season of discipleship.
At the end of the Gospel proclaimed on this First Sunday of Lent, we hear that, "Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the Gospel of God: 'This is the time of fulfillment. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.'" This is the meaning of Lent: Now is the time. Live like you really believe what you profess.
As we continue our Lenten journey towards the Cross and Easter, take some time to reflect on where you're putting your energies and attention this Lent. Are you looking beyond the 40 days and choosing to take up a good work that will enrich your faith in and commitment to the Risen Lord? How, in your prayers and almsgiving, are you reaching out to support those who have been entrusted to our care--especially the poor and those who are suffering? Do your Lenten good works include times for prayer and reflection, almsgiving (sharing your resources with others), and making sacrifices that will truly free your body, mind, and spirit? Are you praying for our persecuted brothers and sisters, Church leaders, for an increase in vocations, and for the grace of conversion? If not, remember that each day is a new day and a time to begin again because we are a people committed to conversion: "The life of the Christian ought to be a continuous Lent," always looking towards that eternal Easter.
A prayer for the First Sunday of Lent +
Grant, almighty God,
through the yearly observance of holy Lent,
that we may grow in understanding
of the riches hidden in Christ
and by worthy conduct pursue their effects.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)