Q: Archbishop J, how should I approach this Lent?
Approach Lent with great joy, anticipation, excitement, and consciousness!
Our culture highlights comfort, security, pleasure, and power. The gospels ask us to cherish other things—a growing love for God and our neighbour.
During Lent, we are invited to renewal through prayer, fasting and almsgiving, none of which is high on our list of joyful or exciting experiences.
War in Ukraine and increased violence at home mark the start of the season. This should lead us to consider how far our value system is from the values of Jesus and of the Kingdom of God.
Until we see this gap very clearly, and mourn over it, we will not see the great opportunity Lent offers. This is a special time of the year, and it is necessary for us to participate fully in it this year.
The Joy of Lent
St James begins his letter: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (1:2–4).
This text is counter cultural for us. He did actually say, “pure joy”! This is the perspective that so many of us miss or lack. When trials come, we tend to be bitter, resentful, or angry. James asks us to consider it pure joy. Why? Because the testing presents an opportunity for significant growth in our love of Christ and our neighbour. This is the highest good. This is the reason for our existence.
Lent is the greatest aid to living—all year through—according to the perspective of the gospel, its values and message. This year, embrace Lent with great joy and connect to its inner dynamic with an open heart and a deep desire for God, who alone can transform our divided heart.
Led into the desert
On the First Sunday of Lent, we read from the account of the temptation of Jesus (Lk 4:1–13). It begins: “Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit through the wilderness, being tempted there by the devil for forty days.”
It is the Holy Spirit that leads us into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. This is a very difficult concept. Before Jesus can begin His mission, He must face what Adam and Eve faced: temptation.
This Lent, let us consciously resist evil and choose good, and grow in our reliance on God, despite all the difficulties. Let us use the time well, consciously, and wisely and not waste this golden opportunity.
James reminds us that our testing produces perseverance, and our perseverance finishes its work so we can be mature and complete, not lacking anything. This is the goal of the spiritual life—full initiation into Christ.
We go to the wilderness, as a divine invitation, not because we want to or like it there. The Book of Hosea reminds us of both the divine initiative and the purpose. Says the Lord, “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.” And then, “there she will answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt” (Hosea 2:14,15).
We are invited into the wilderness so that God could draw us close to Himself, so He can renew the spousal relationship and draw us back to love of Him and our neighbour.
Then, in conscious spousal relationship (mystical union) with God, we will see as God sees, we will act as God desires, and each one of us will be another Christ in this world.
Lent can fly by with little effect on us. Let us not allow this to happen this year. I would like to offer you some suggestions to make this Lent a real journey to God, a journey to mystical union with Him, where you will respond to His voice and His heart.
Lent has three disciplines—prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Let us commit to do something in each of these areas this year.
Why not have a buddy system? Speak with a trusted friend and share what you are committing to do. Let him or her also share, in a similar fashion.
Commit, once a week, to talk about your resolutions and so keep each other on course and accountable. If you check in every week, you cannot go too far off.
Prayer: Look at your commitment to prayer during this season. Ask two questions: (1) Am I consciously raising my mind and heart to God during times of prayer, or am I going through the motions? (2) Is the time I have committed sufficient?
If your prayer is a matter of going through the motions, then the first commitment is to deepen what you are already doing. Really, set the time aside and focus on God. See it as your special time with Him and reject all distractions. If you are not spending sufficient time, then here are some suggestions.
Add meditation every day. Begin with five minutes in the morning or evening and build it up to 20 minutes per day by the end of Lent. You can also add the Examen of Consciousness at the end of a day (about 10 minutes).
Add Mass and Eucharistic Adoration during the week; if you have not been going to in-person Masses, commit to attend Mass every Sunday in Lent. Of course, the daily rosary is a staple in Catholic life, and reading the gospel or First Reading of the Mass with meditation is a great boon.
Fasting: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are the official fast days of the Church. Keep them with great joy and focus. But you could make Friday a fast day each week, or at least abstain by not eating meat on Friday or for the whole of Lent. Give up something you really like during Lent. Offer it up, asking for the grace to draw closer to Christ. There are many scientifically proven reasons for fasting.
Almsgiving: This covers a multitude of sins. Give away to the poor. Be generous during this time. If there is a neighbour, or relative in need—be generous. If there is a stranger who comes your way—be generous.
To assist you this Lent, I want to recommend two books
(1) Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. This is the most influential Christian book after the Bible. It is available for download, here.
(2) Into the Silent Land by Martin Laird. This is a wonderful text on the inner life of prayer, and an exploration of the Catholic tradition, available on Kindle or Audible.
Key Message: Lent is a precious opportunity; let us live it diligently with prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
Action Step: Make concrete decisions about prayer, fasting and almsgiving for Lent, write them down and find a friend to share them with. Check in with your friend once a week.
Scripture Reading: Luke 4:1–13