So I put the brown, Volume III of the Liturgy of the Hours (Ordinary Time) back on the shelf and pulled down the red, Volume II (Lent/Easter). I noticed something about it this time as I held it in my hand. The cover and the spine are a lot more malleable then when I originally purchased the set and a few pages have the corners turned up on them. Then I opened it and read the antiphon for the Invitatory:
“Come, let us worship Christ the Lord, who for our sake endured temptation and suffering.“
It sounded familiar and I suddenly became thankful for the changing of seasons, the opportunity once again to begin the observance of Lent. Through all the changes that have taken place in my life in the past year, and there have been a lot of them, the Lord shows his constancy through the Church’s liturgical seasons. He always invites us to go deeper with him. As I meditated on that for a few minutes in my office this morning, the “burden” of Lent disappeared and it was replaced by joy.
Lent is best known for “giving up something” and not for its focus on fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. The problem with the idea of “giving up something” is that we never seem ready to give up our sense of entitlement. We may put aside chocolate, caffeine, or sweets, and in a sense meet the letter of the law, but we never seem to give up the idea that we are somehow entitled to those things (and many others). The end result of Lent is that we celebrate Easter by binging in a week long period of self-indulgence. Somehow I don’t think that is the point of Lent. What is it that gets lost in the transition from Lent to Easter: from self denial to self-gratification? The practice of fasting is like the preparation of an athlete for a competition; we are trying to “get fit” (again) as believers in preparation for Easter and the renewal of Christian living beyond Lent.
True fasting, according to Isaiah 58, is not a endurance test for the body to abstain from certain types of food, or even food altogether, but it is an abstaining from sin, injustice, corruption and deceit. This type of fasting is related to almsgiving and social justice. The bonus about focusing on this type of fasting is that it doesn’t end at Easter. In the book of Isaiah, we read:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, Here I am. “If you take away from the midst of you the yoke, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday (Is 58:6-10).
Once again, this is the type of fast that can, and should, be lived year round. It is a very practical kind where fasting means Christians truly living their faith. It requires recognizing injustice, protesting against it, and protecting its victims.
Another Lenten focus is on prayer. Rarely is prayer easy. At least it’s not for me. I often wonder if prayer something we do or something we allow God to do in us. I suppose it could be a little of both. Prayer is our attempt to remain in conscious contact with God, to remain open to his wisdom and love. Prayer means remaining open to receiving God’s gifts. It also means allowing God to work through us in order to bring about the change God wants for his people. The type of change that ushers in the justice that Isaiah spoke of.
The observance of Lent and its associated “tasks” – fasting, almsgiving, and prayer – last for 40 in remembrance of the 40 days Jesus spent being tempted in the wilderness after his baptism by John (Luke 4:1-13). There he was tested: was he really serious about the mission he was called to? Did he really love the Father with all his heart, all his mind, and all his strength? Was he, at heart, serious about serving God fully, no matter what that might require, even death?
We are tested in this way, not “in the wilderness,” but by life. Through temptation we learn about our weakness and about the depth of our commitment. When tempted we should ask ourselves: “To what extent am I willing to serve the Lord?” During Lent, we consciously invite this kind of test through our fasting; we hold our lives up to God for his scrutiny and beg for his mercy.
During our 40 day observance of Lent we not only have Jesus example to guide us, but his Spirit to accompany us on the journey. My prayer this Lent is that at the end of it I’ll be a bit more like the red volume of my breviary – a little more malleable than when I began.