While much of the Christian world will be celebrating wildly this Mardi Gras or ‘Fat Tuesday,’ thoughtful Christians will also be reflecting on the Season of Grace and Blessing that will soon open before us, the following day, Ash Wednesday. With the solemn imposition of the primary symbol of this penitential day, ashes reverently place on our foreheads, we enter into the principal penitential season of the Church’s Year of Grace.
As those ashes are imposed upon us, we hear again the essential admonition and dynamic of this season, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” It is that verb, ‘repent,’ that captures the foundational rhythm of these 40 days that stand as a time of spiritual retreat and reflection for the Church Universal. To repent is to turn our hearts and lives around in conversion. Unlike the perception that some of our born-again sisters and brothers hold, that conversion is a dramatic and once in a life-time experience, we Catholics see conversion as a life-time vocation. Every day should provide graced opportunities to discover again the goodness and mercy of our gracious and forgiving God. And, in discovering again this unfailing love, we turn again from all that might promise ultimate fulfillment and happiness in this world to the one who can only fulfill that hunger of the heart, in this world and the next.
As we find ourselves poised to enter into this joyful season of spiritual renewal, I offer these following suggestions that I have found, over the years, to be beneficial for an enriching and grace-filled Lenten Journey:
1. Rediscover the power of God’s Holy Word in the Scriptures. Let God’s Word be our fundamental companion during these 40 days. If it is impossible to participate in the daily Eucharist, prayerfully reflect on the daily scripture texts that are prescribed for each day of lent. They can be easily found online: http://usccb.org
2. Ideally, participation in the daily celebration of the Eucharist has been and continues to be the time-honored and traditional way of keeping a holy Lent. However, when this might be very inconvenient or impossible, perhaps selecting the ancient penitential days of Wednesday and Friday to assist at the Eucharist. Feasting on the Lord’s sacramental presence continues to be an unsurpassed way of entering into the spirit of Lent.
3. Spiritual Reading. Each Lent, I return to the daily reading of a splendid book that was published some years ago, Roman Pilgrimage by George Weigel, Elizabeth Lev and Stephen Weigel. Taking as their theme, the ancient Roman Stational Churches designated for the Eucharist each day of Lent, this marvelous book provides scriptural reflections based upon the Lenten liturgies for each day of the season, insightful and fascinating historical explanations of these ancient Stational Churches, combined with beautiful photographs of these historic Churches of the Lenten itinerary. I never tire of this wonderful Lenten companion.
4. What about fasting? While the ancient rigorous Lenten fast has been greatly mitigated in these last decades since the Second Vatican Council, now limited to abstaining from meat on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent and Fasting only two days of Lent, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, the voluntary ‘giving up’ of favorite foods and drink still remains a time-honored way of identifying with our crucified Savior. Voluntary mortification through limiting what we might eat and drink, is a physical reminder of the deeper hunger of the human heart for the food and drink of God’s love, mercy, compassion and justice that should be the ultimate source of our deepest joy.
May these 40 Days be a time for us all to experience the spiritual renewal that is the hallmark of a Church that is ‘ever ancient and ever new.’