Are you ready for the desert? Are you ready to be hungry? Have you eaten your last chocolates for the next 40 days? We are beginning Lent, a time we are all familiar with, no matter how close or how far we are or have been from the Catholic Church. As a wise priest once told me, “As Catholics we do Lent really well, but we struggle to celebrate Easter.”
Everyone and their mother will come to church on Ash Wednesday to “get something”, and some of our Catholics who cannot get to church for some reason will have their grandson (nieto) come up with a little envelope to take some ashes back for abuelito (in a Hispanic parish, one sees such things). A beautiful (even though sometimes superstitious) devotion.
Why do we go into the desert? Why do we get our foreheads dirty? Why do we take on penance (small or great)?
If there were ever a time for a Christian “to look like he has just come from a funeral” as Pope Francis warned us not to do, Lent seems like it would be that time. Suffering, dryness (for some reason, some priests take away the holy water during Lent), and death, how can this not affect our happy Christian face?
Yet, the Gospel we read every Ash Wednesday warns against these things:
When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.
So let us remember what Lent is, and what we are preparing for. Lent comes from the period of preparation that adults would undertake before they were baptized. It was (and is) the last push, a time to put off the old man (or woman) and get ready to receive the Sacraments that make us “a new creation”. This really hit home for me when a friend of mine, who was preparing to be baptized at Easter, told me that she was giving up make-up for Lent. The “face” that we put on, not just with make-up but in so many other ways, has to give way to the face, the identity, the true beauty that Christ wants to give us in Baptism. I don’t remember if she was able to articulate what she was doing in that way, but it goes down in my mind as the best Lenten penance ever.
And the Church invites us who have already been baptized to partake in that same journey toward Easter. Lent, then, is the time that we use to get ready for something specific: the renewal of our Baptismal Promises at the Easter Vigil or at Mass on Easter Sunday–and the sprinkling with Holy Water as a reminder of our Baptism.
The new man, the new woman, the new creation!
Jesus Christ gives us a new relationship with everything, because He makes us new in Baptism. And we want that Baptism to really develop and flower and bloom and bear fruit in our lives. We want a new relationship with things (and so we pick some sort of fast, to remember Who gives us everything). We want a new relationship with people (and so we give alms in charity toward those who are in need, who I recognize as Jesus). We want a new relationship with God (and so we rededicate ourselves to prayer).
Lent is not a time to pretend that Jesus is dead, to embrace the Cross without remembering the Resurrection. Maybe some of us are tempted to this. There was a Lent at the seminary when the group that prayed the Rosary before dinner prayed the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary every single day of Lent. But when the Easter season came around, we did not pray the Glorious Mysteries everyday. Just like the priest said: We are good at Lent, but struggle to celebrate Easter.
Maybe some of us are tempted in the opposite direction. We react strongly against an overly-pessimistic Christian attitude, that would see everything and everyone as sinful. So, we stay on the edges of Lent because that is “old school”, and seems to be a season for self-hatred. And doesn’t Pope Francis want us to be upbeat, after all?…
St. Paul gives us a wonderful way to balance the two approaches, that are over-simplifications and exaggerations. Here is my “money verse” for Lent. Paul desires, “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and to share in his sufferings by being conformed to his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:10-11)
The only reason we have and the only hope to move from the old creation to the new creation, from darkness to light, from sin to freedom, is the fact that the victory has already been won in Jesus Christ. He is Risen! We can go into the desert (not dessert!), because Christ is waiting there for us. We can go to Confession seeking freedom from our sins, because Christ is waiting there for us (primerear, going before, as Pope Francis says). Every time we feel a little bit of hunger, or can’t drink the soda we want, or give a little money to someone in need, that is a tap on the shoulder, an invitation to recognize Christ who is calling us into His new creation.
Paul wanted to know Christ and the power of His Resurrection. He did not pretend that Christ was still dead; his Lent was not just about the Cross. It was about making the victory of Christ his own. Yet, there was suffering involved. Here is Paul’s realism: Christ has won the victory, but I have not…yet. So, I embrace the Cross that Christ gives me, in hope that the victory of the Resurrection will be mine someday. The way of Christ is the way of the Christian, and we will not reach His victory without sharing His sufferings.
Easter Sunday, for those of us who celebrate Lent well, will not be a day to tell us something we did not already know. We are not pretending, so as to be “surprised” on the day of Easter. When we proclaim on Easter Sunday that “Christ is truly risen!”, we will also be proclaiming, “And I belong to Him through Baptism!” Lent is that time to belong more deeply, more totally to Christ. The renewal of Baptismal Promises will then be the proclamation of His victory in me, a victory that continues to transform me from the old creation to the new creation.
May it be so!