Last week we reflected on the first of three aspects of Lent that I find are not prominent in our current Catholic Culture; tonight, we delve into the second.
Lent is a season that should be the hinge for the liturgical year. Christmas and Easter are the premier seasons of the Liturgical because they celebrate our reason for hope, peace, and joy. They are the book-ends of God’s revelation and our salvation. But Lent – Lent is when we look within and measure our ability to fully embrace Christmas and Easter. Lent is when we take inventory of our shortcomings in loving God and take efforts in strengthening ourselves to improve our relationship. The readings we hear during Sunday Vespers during Lent highlights the kind of effort we should be making – it is spiritually athletic and much energy is needed.
To help us with this, the Gospel readings for the first Sunday in Lent brings us face to face with Christ in the desert. This reading shows two very important aspects of a Lent: one rather obvious, the other mostly overlooked. In this reading we see that Christ starts His ministry by participating in Lenten exercises. Christ walks before us in Lent; His fasting and prayer are lessons for us. He is the example, the guide that we need. But what goes almost unnoticed (in regards to Lent) is that at the end of this event Christ returns to His community – the reason He went into the desert was ultimately for His community – Lent is a community exercise as well as private.
Let’s take a look at another Lenten Gospel reading, the Ash Wednesday Gospel – first Gospel of Lent:
‘“Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. “Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’
We hear Christ teaching us the importance of a private and personal relationship with the Lord. How important it is to not just go through the motions of public demonstration but to embrace totally God’s desire to be with us, lead us, love us, and affect us profoundly. But what is also important is that Christ is explaining this to His followers. He is helping His community; He participates with them so that they can grow and continue to walk with Him. This important part of the Lenten experience was commented on by Pope Paul VI, in his 1973 Lenten message, indeed he starts the message with it: ‘Lent is a time of self-denial and penance; but it is also a time of fellowship and solidarity.’
Brothers and sisters, we are called to interior conversion so that we can grow closer to God. What better time to start this than in Lent, when we pay special attention to the threefold Lenten exercise plan of prayer, alms giving, and fasting. But what we can’t ignore is that this interior exercise is not done in isolation – we are community. By community I mean we are a family journeying this exercise together, we can and should help each other, give strength to each other as a physical trainer does for his client. We have the need and obligation to participate as a family in these exercises so that all of us will grow in both giving and receiving help.
The obvious part about this community experience is that we need to give of ourselves to those in physical and material need. We are called to humble ourselves, lower ourselves to help raise those who are the most vulnerable and needy. But, as important are those who are on the journey and can’t find the path; those, who though aren’t in physical and material danger, are floundering in their spiritual growth. In short we need to bring, and re-bring them the good news – WE NEED TO EVANGELIZE! Christ tells us to go into our inner room to pray but He also tells us: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”’
By a participation in public Lenten events we make a statement to those who are wavering and about to give up. By open discussion about our Lenten journey we bond with those who are also trying. In other words; we minister to each other in our Lenten exercise of intense prayer, alms-giving, and fasting. So my friends, as we experience our Lenten desert exercises let’s be for each other like the angels who ministered to Jesus; so that, when our time has come to reenter the community we can bring Christ to our neighbors and our neighbors to Christ.