Someone reminded me that last year, I proclaimed that Lent to be the “Lentiest Lent that ever Lented!” Certainly we have just been through a very Lenty year, with the specter of a pandemic, the sadness of racial injustice and social unrest, the frustration of political rancor, and all the rest. The arrival of Lent again, already, well, it almost seems unfair, doesn’t it?
And this Lent seems more unfair with the directive that we cannot trace an ashen cross on people’s foreheads due to the pandemic. Instead, today, we will sprinkle them on your heads as you bow in penitence. But it seems like it’s just another thing they’ve taken away from us, that the virus has stolen from us. Unless we, people of faith that we are, change our outlook. If we look at this as an opportunity to receive ashes the way most non-English speaking countries in the world have for ages, then we can see this as an opportunity for Church unity. If we seek to still witness to our faith even though we can’t point to our ashes, then we can see this as an opportunity to strengthen our Christian witness every day. I get it: it’s still another thing we’ve lost this year, but if we activate our faith and let God give us new opportunities, then maybe this can be the moment that we get out of the funk we’ve seemingly been in for the last year and become a Church and a people who truly live for Christ so much that the people around us who don’t know Christ get curious about who he is.
In every day and age, times are tough. Sometimes it seems times are tougher than others, and if this isn’t one of them, I don’t know what is. But the only way we can get through that, honestly, is by being people of faith who entrust their times to the providence and love of God, who is most merciful. Lent, friends, gives us the opportunity to do that, as it always does, through fasting, almsgiving, and prayer.
Fasting can take on a whole lot of forms. It’s not the same thing as going on a diet for Lent. We should certainly give something up, something that will be uncomfortable, something we will miss. It should, ideally, be something we have given greater place in our lives than we have to God. In fasting, friends, we learn that there is nothing we hunger for that God can’t provide, and provide much better, if we let him. Fasting makes us remember that God is trustworthy, that his love for us helps us in ways we can’t even imagine. So perhaps we will give up a favorite food or a television show, or a video game or social media. Maybe we will give up the necessity to always be right, to always get our way, to always get the final word. Maybe we will give up deep-seated resentments, or unjust attitudes toward others. Maybe we will give up just living for ourselves and taking care of “number one.”
Almsgiving, too, can look different in every person’s life. We are told that giving alms covers a multitude of sins, because giving alms shows love that is unencumbered by our ability to control things. When we make a donation, when we give to a person in need, we let God decide exactly how that gets used. It’s a way of freely giving of ourselves. So maybe we will make a donation to the parish or to another charity; but almsgiving for us might look like giving of our time: helping to teach a religious education class or read to students, or looking in on an elderly neighbor or bringing them a lovingly-prepared meal. Maybe giving alms for us looks like foregoing the daily Dunkin’ run or Starbucks stop and using that money to give to someone in need. When we give of ourselves, we see God using us in ways we never even considered.
And finally, prayer. We’re supposed to be praying every day, of course, and I think most of us do. But there’s always the need, I think, to grow in our prayer lives. That’s certainly true for me. Maybe our prayer has become rote, or stale. If that’s true, Lent is a great time to shake things up and do a reset. I always tell people who say that their prayer life isn’t going anywhere to try something new. Maybe the Rosary, or Divine Mercy, or if you’ve been doing those, maybe some centering prayer or prayerfully reflecting on a book of Scripture during Lent. It could be coming to Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, even if we’re doing it drive-up style for now. It could even be as simple as zealously digging out a five minute break in the day to sit and be silent, looking at a religious picture, or listening to some inspirational music. Whatever it is that we haven’t tried, it might be worth trying and see if we find it helpful. Whatever leads us closer to God is always a grace, and God uses different experiences to speak to us all the time. Try trying something new!
Lent isn’t all about the ashes. There’s a lot to it: fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. But in another sense, it is all about the ashes: how will we quiet ourselves, humble ourselves, do penance, and come closer to Jesus? I hope your experience of ashes, and of Lent, this year enlivens your life with Christ in ways you never imagined. I pray that this forty day retreat moves heaven and earth in our parish, in our community, and in our homes.