Lent! It’s here, the party’s over. The liturgy bids us cease the festive parades of Carnival and enter the quiet desert of heart-rending penitence. In place of the laughter and cheer of Mardi Gras, we now hear the weeping of Adam, the dirge of Eve that echoes still from the primal Fall (Gen 3:19), along with the press of mortal ash that crosses our foreheads:
Memento, homo, quia pulvis es,
et in pulverem reverteris.
“Remember, man, you are dust
and to dust you will return.”
Liturgy is God’s manner of (re)structuring and redeeming time and space.
We who have been Baptized into Christ and anointed by the Spirit become ourselves liturgical beings, seized by the redeeming work of God (Phil. 3:12). In us the Holy Spirit recapitulates the life, death and resurrection of Christ so that we might be daily remade in His likeness. We pray, “Christ, live your life in me.”
Like a signet ring pressed into soft wax, the Spirit-filled liturgical seasons of the church year mark history’s unfolding with the diverse facets of the mystery of Christ. The church, born of and birthing the liturgy, makes the Kingdom’s re-ordering of time and space present here-and-now, in innumerably creative ways. Just think of how — no matter the distortions — these liturgical seasons and feasts have shaped the American culture of time: Advent-Christmas, Mardi Gras, Groundhog Day (Presentation of the Lord), Valentine’s Day, Lent, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter.
Liturgy, when it is made alive in us, is meant to become a primary locus and force of the Spirit’s shaping of human culture according to the pattern revealed by Christ in His words and deeds (Ex. 25:9). In the Sacraments we become a living, breathing, walking, speaking, singing, working, suffering sacramental liturgy in the world, allowing the Risen Christ, now exalted beyond history, to daily “crash the party” of life, transforming revelry into the celebration of redemption. As liturgical beings, we permit Christ in each moment of history, through-with-in us, to “do His thing” in all human cultures until the end of time.
Lent is the liturgical space-time warp when the church accompanies Jesus into the great silence of the Judean desert and face the ancient Tempter of humanity with all the weapons of the Father, i.e. prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Let me offer a brief reflection on each of these.
Prayer: Prayer is intimate communion with the living God that allows us to bring our existence under the sway of His energetic power. Prayer affirms our dignity as stewards of God’s creation, allowing us to participate in His providential governance of all things, including evil. We have all been marked in Baptism with a priestly nature, and priests above all mediate, which makes each of us a center of commerce, so to speak, between heaven and earth. In this sense, prayer exists to increase in the world Heaven’s premier commodity, agápē. Agápē, in the New Testament, is the catch word for the singular manifestation of the “no greater love” shown by God in Christ on the Cross. This form of love is the signet ring’s image, the signature style by which God governs all things. It’s why the demons, purveyors of loveless death, despise prayer because they know it is Heaven’s chosen means by which creation is soaked in God’s life-giving and redeeming love. Fr. Hopko makes this point with his customary sharpness:
If you wish to prove the existence of Satan, start praying daily with depth and consistency and watch all Hell break loose to try to stop you with a thousand good reasons why you don’t need to pray now. “Not today, later, plenty of time” is their refrain. But God says to us, “Now is the time of salvation.”
Fasting: Fasting is usually associated with cultivating self-discipline, losing weight, taming the unruly passions, breaking addictions or helping turn our focus from purely material to more spiritual realities. In a word, fasting facilitates inner freedom for Christian excellence which requires self-mastery, with the appetites and emotions being under the rule of right-reason informed by faith. Fasting gives wings to prayer, helping snap our tethering cords and allowing us to feel in our bodies the ache of our yearning for God.
Fasting is also about exercising the muscle of solidarity — “I am my brother’s keeper” — under the form of hunger, inscribing the law of sacrifice into our body. Like a nursing mother, Christians eat always with the feeding of others in mind. Fasting involves renouncing good things, especially needful things, in order to free certain “goods” up to benefit others who lack them. This is why the demons hate fasting, because it frees the heart for agápē, for life-giving sacrifice. And whenever we present to God a sacrifice born of love for His glory and the good of our neighbor (tautology), no matter how tiny it is, God infallibly responds in a 100:1 ratio (Mark 10:30). St. Therese said this beautifully:
Even to pick up a pin for love can convert a soul.
Indeed, sacrificial love is the grain of God written into creation, marred in the Fall, and found deeply embedded in the core of the wood of the Cross. When we sync our lives with the endless rings of this grain, we re-create creation with the Creator.
Almsgiving: Almsgiving flows from prayer and fasting. We pray to become capable of loving God with our whole heart, soul, mind, strength and our neighbor as ourself. Prayer inspires us to offer to God our bodies as a living sacrifice, fasting prepares the material for the sacrificial feast and almsgiving is the feast offered to “the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind” (Luke 14:13). This sacrificial feast can be a feast of food, of hope, of friendship, of justice advocacy, of time spent in patient listening or any number of other acts of agápē that bring life to the world around us.
As an elderly priest said once in a homily, “If we give up sweets for Lent, it’s so we can become sweeter to the bitter.” Love that.
In the desert and on the eucharistic Cross, Jesus prayed, fasted and gave sacrificial Alms to satisfy our hunger with finest Wheat and quench our thirst with the rivers of tender mercy that flowed from His open side. God’s liturgy of love makes of every desert an oasis and of every Cross a Tree of Life.
There is a woman I know — have known for decades — who has a son with Down Syndrome, who is himself beset by several severe disabilities. We will call him Tony. Among his many challenges, he has a sleeping disorder that keeps him up for 3-day stretches 2 to 3 times a month. And this has gone on for nearly 30 years. Because he is terrified of being alone during the night during these stretches, she stays awake with him, and then works during the day while he is at school. That astounds me. Once when I was speaking with her, I complimented her amazing stamina and selfless love for him. She said, “No, it’s Tony who’s the champ. He’s the one who suffers with this. Me? I have the privilege to accompany him. You know I say that if I’m ever saved when I die, it’ll only be because of Tony. He pulled me out of my self-centered life and taught me how to love.”
And is that not the meaning of salvation? To think less of yourself in order to think more of others.
Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins. — 1 Pet. 4:8
This Lent, may our chosen way of prayer, fasting and almsgiving thus save us, and the world, with the beauty of Christ’s sacrificial love.