Lent is the Church’s annual retreat

Archbishop Paul S. Coakley

As I write this column on Valentine’s Day, there is a media frenzy swirling over the “next big thing” in pop culture, the opening of the film “Fifty Shades of Grey.” The film, based on a trilogy of books by the same title, graphically depicts how far our mainstream cultural tastes have descended the slippery slope of self-indulgent fantasy and depravity. It is a story that glamorizes sexual violence. Its premise condones a blatant disrespect for the dignity of women and scorn for the beauty of God’s plan for spousal love and intimacy within marriage. It’s about sado-masochism. And it’s wildly popular. While this may be a cultural barometer pointing to something terribly disordered in our society, and in our souls, there is another popular gathering this month that will garner very little media attention, but is a sign of hope.

As this edition of the Sooner Catholic is published on the First Sunday of Lent, hundreds of our neighbors from across the archdiocese will gather at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help for the Rite of Election.

 

This scene will be replicated by tens of thousands of people in cathedrals all over the country, indeed all over the world. They have heard God’s call. They are responding to the invitation to repent, to turn away from sin, and to believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They have been on a journey that will lead to the celebration of the Sacraments of Initiation at the Easter Vigil. They are celebrating the victory of the Cross, the triumph of self-giving sacrificial love over selfishness and sin. The faith journey of these men and women is the paradigm for the pilgrim journey of all Christian believers during the season of Lent. 

On Ash Wednesday, we receive a smudge of ashes on our foreheads in the form of a cross. It reminds us of our mortality and the transience of all that this world values: wealth, pleasure and honors. Lent is a call to recommit ourselves to the path of conversion upon which we set out when we were baptized. It is an opportunity to focus more intentionally and intensely on those things that ought to characterize our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ. 

The traditional disciplines of Lent are a healthy recipe for Christian living. All three are important. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are given to us by the Lord in the Sermon on the Mount, along with the proper spirit with which to undertake each of them (Mt.6).

Prayer, especially prayer from the heart, helps us to draw closer to the Lord. It allows the Lord to draw us into deeper relationship with Himself so that we can see, judge and act from a perspective of faith; from God’s perspective.

Fasting is self-denial. It means giving up something good that we enjoy: perhaps food, drink or some legitimate pleasure. This is not because of some morbid spirit. On the contrary, fasting and penance help us master our selfish impulses, so that we can live in authentic freedom, the freedom of the Spirit.

Almsgiving means not only sharing our wealth with the poor, but also sharing ourselves with others. There are as many ways to practice almsgiving as there are ways to pray and to fast. The CRS Ricebowl, which is used in many parishes, schools and homes, is a daily reminder of our Lenten commitment. It reminds us that what we deny ourselves, frees us to share with others. It frees us to serve. It frees us to love as God loves and to go out of ourselves and be more mindful of those around us, especially the poor and marginalized. 

Lent is the pilgrim church’s annual time of retreat. The 40 days of Lent invite us to follow Jesus into the wilderness and renew our baptismal commitment, rejecting sin and Satan in order to live more fully with and for the Lord. We will be put to the test as Jesus was. But to the extent that we give ourselves generously to its disciplines, we will emerge with clearer vision and greater freedom and a renewed confidence in the love that God has for each us.