Archbishop Paul S. Coakley Feb. 7, 2016
Each year, the Church offers us the beautiful season of Lent as a time of repentance and renewal. We begin our Lenten journey this week on Ash Wednesday. As we are signed with ashes we are reminded of our own mortality; we come from dust and to dust we shall return. We are called to repent and believe the Good News.
From its beginnings, Lent was the final time of preparation and purification for the catechumens. These were the men and women preparing for Baptism and full initiation into the Church that they would celebrate during the sacred Easter Triduum.
In time, Lent became a season of special observance for all the members of the Church who accompanied the catechumens by their prayers, and prepared to renew their own Baptismal promises at Easter. Such is the rich meaning of this season still today.
The journey we begin by being signed with ashes on Ash Wednesday leads to the glorious celebration of our victory over sin on the feast of the Lord’s Resurrection. We share his paschal journey through death to new life. It is a time of repentance during which we acknowledge our sins, ask for mercy and seek a change of heart.
In the Gospel for the Mass of Ash Wednesday, Jesus admonishes us to be sure that our religious observances flow from an interior disposition of heart that seeks to please God rather than impress others: “Be on guard against performing religious acts for people to see.” Our Lenten observances need to have both an inner quality and an outward expression.
In that same Gospel, Jesus cites the three traditional practices of the Lenten season: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. These practices are valid for all time. We can be creative in how we use them, but it is important that our Lenten observances involve some aspect of all three.
Fasting is a way of expressing our prayer bodily while we seek freedom over our self-indulgent appetites. Prayer is what gives our fasting and other works of penance a true interior quality. Almsgiving is important so that our spiritual exercises do not turn us in on ourselves, but help us reach out to others in mercy. The Lenten journey helps us to express our repentance by opening our hearts both to the Lord and to our brothers and sisters, especially the poor.
Individuals, families and parishes all will have their special Lenten customs. The traditional Stations of the Cross on Fridays are a tried and true way of sharing with the Lord the journey of his bitter passion. Reading and praying with the Scriptures, especially the liturgical readings of the day can make this a profoundly rich season of grace. Some make the commitment to attend weekday Masses more often. Setting aside something for the poor as the fruit of our own self-denial is an important way of combining the disciplines of fasting and almsgiving.
The CRS Rice Bowl is a practical aid for families, classrooms and individuals to help us practice almsgiving. (There are even catechetical materials and a mobile app for the CRS Rice Bowl available at www.crsricebowl.org.) As a special emphasis during the Year of Mercy, a renewed focus on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy can guide our Lenten practice and make it even more fruitful. Visiting the sick, the homebound or the incarcerated, volunteering to help feed the hungry or leading a clothing drive in the community are among the many ways we are invited to enter fully into the season of Lent so as to come to a profound and lasting change of heart.
The ways of observing Lent are as numerous and varied as we are creative. Nonetheless, the Church asks that we be mindful of the serious obligation to abstain from meat on the Fridays of Lent and to fast and abstain on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Some of us are procrastinators. We may wait until Lent is nearly over before getting started. Now is the time to prayerfully decide how the Lord is calling us to observe this season. What are the sins that we need to uproot from our lives? What are the virtues that we need to cultivate? What are the steps that we need to take in order to realize these desires? Start with these questions and formulate a simple and realistic plan.
Lent is a shared journey of faith. Let us pray for one another.