How to Have a Meaningful Lent
Lent is upon Us!
If you’re like me, it doesn’t seem to matter how early in the year you think about the onset of this momentous season – it always seems to creep up on you!
We believers in the Lord have the greatest intentions to make the most of this time of preparation. Yet, we often find ourselves too weak or too distracted to see it through in a way that brings the spiritual transformation we had hoped to experience. With that all-too-familiar truth in mind, I’d like to share some words of encouragement as we begin this 40 day journey in the hopes that we can all get the most out of Lent this year.
Do you like acronyms? I sure hope so. Twelve years in the U.S. Army made acronyms second nature to me, I suppose that bled over into my faith at some point. As silly as it might sound, I sometimes find faith-related acronyms helpful. For one thing, they are easy to memorize. Seemingly out of nowhere, the other day I was inspired with an acronym for LENT I’d like offer to you. It goes like this:
- Love the season of Lent
- Enter into the mysteries (i.e. “mystagogy” – we’ll come back to that word!)
- Never give up
- Thank God – for ALL of it
Let’s unpack that with some musings, shall we?
Love the Season of Lent
I think Lent is oftentimes difficult for us because we have a tendency to think of it as merely a duty or something that is expected of us. This is quite true. However, if we limit ourselves to this understanding, we run the risk of approaching every aspect of the season with a servile attitude. We can become so fixated on “following the rules” that we easily lose sight of why the rules are there in the first place. This can even lead us to a kind of pharisaism in which we focus on the letter of the law more than the relationship with the Lawgiver, which is the most essential thing of all.
Mind you, I’m not suggesting for a moment that rules are not important – they are essential! The image of a fence surrounding a playground near a street or a precipice comes to mind. The fence, like the rules and laws of the Church, serves to protect the children from danger. We practice Lenten observances not simply because it’s the way we’ve always done things, but because they are good for us. It is good for our souls to embrace the Lenten season in every way we can, prepare ourselves for it, read good books about Lent, and dig into the Church’s writings & guidelines. This helps us to experience Lent in the richest manner possible.
Our lives are filled with various duties and the just expectation others should have of responsible behavior on our part. But why? It’s simple. We are made for love, from love, by Love Himself. Lent only exists to help us live love more authentically, purely, unobstructed and free. Lent is about letting go of everything we possibly can that is getting in the way of loving as Christ loves. So we should LOVE Lent, not fear it or see it as another burden or some old fashioned tradition we just have to survive for a few weeks.
Enter into the Mysteries
I mentioned the word “mystagogy” earlier and I promised to come back to it. It’s an old word, one that we find repeatedly in the earliest Christian writings. The Fathers of the Church were dedicated “mystagogues”, and all of their preaching and pastoral work bears witness to this fact. The word comes from two Greek words which, when combined, have the sense of “leading into the mysteries.”
The early Christians were an endangered species. It’s difficult for us to imagine just how much their lives were characterized by constant vigilance and preparation for likely martyrdom. An untroubled, care-free, casual and comfortable Christianity was completely unknown to our early forebears. We would all do well to keep that in mind! To be a Christian required tremendous courage, daily reinforcement, constant upbuilding and fortifying of the will and the intellect. To put it bluntly, if this Way were a path that could very likely put me into the jaws of a ravenous lion before throngs of cheering spectators, it better be worth it.
And so, the earliest Christian leaders – saintly heroes like Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Ambrose, Augustine and so many others – passionately sought to teach and preach and lead their people ever deeper into the sacred mysteries. Mysteries that Christ gifted to mankind for his salvation.
We are at war, St. Paul says, not with flesh and blood, but with “the principalities, [and] the powers… the world rulers of this present darkness… the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). We need all the weapons we can get in this spiritual war, and there are none mightier than the sacraments.
We must pray, fast, and give alms. We must strive to take seriously the dramatic reality of the work of salvation Christ inaugurated and continues through the Church – the extension of Himself through space and time. We are now part of that same story! We must remember this each day. If we do, our Lenten journey will no longer seem like an analogous mimicry of the actions of other, “holier” people. Rather, we will see it for what it is – our cross, our way, our chapter in the One Story.
Never Give Up
This is perhaps the most obvious part. However, that doesn’t make it easy, does it? How many times have you made it about a week or two into Lent, and then just bombed? Maybe you made a Lenten plan to lay off chocolate only to find yourself grabbing a handful of M&Ms before you realized what was happening? Or, perhaps my favorite, you remember that Ash Wednesday is an abstinence day an hour after you get that huge, greasy McDonald’s breakfast sandwich.
Please hear me loud and clear, dear reader: YOU ARE NOT ALONE! The mega Star Wars fan in me wants to share with you Luke Skywalker’s simple and powerful message to little Grogu/“Baby Yoda” when he’s knocked down abruptly during Jedi training: “Get up… ALWAYS get back up…” It’s never too late to do the right thing, the better thing, the holier thing. As a kindergarten teacher I know likes to say, “Remember, let’s do the next right thing!” Amen.
Thank God – for ALL of It
I’d like to wrap things up with an encouragement for us to be people of gratitude. This is so difficult for us in this day and age. We are programmed from the earliest moments to always focus on what else we can get that inevitably it generates a corresponding awareness of what we don’t have. I’m absolutely guilty of this. I am far from saintly in this regard, but praise God, at least I know it now. I try to remember that when I’m tempted to despair or despondency.
Our God loves us so much that He refuses to give us the things we ask for knowing they will not be good for us in the long run. It is so difficult sometimes during Lent to be thankful. We should try extra hard this year to pay attention to just how weak, how helpless, how desperately in need of mercy and redemption we really are. But we should also resist the temptation to allow that realization to make us gloomy, brooding, frowning grumps! St. Padre Pio, who undoubtedly suffered more than I could in 10 lifetimes, liked to encourage those in his sphere of influence to “Pray with a smile.”
So let’s love Lent! Let us willingly, purposely, intentionally enter as deeply into its rich mysteries as we possibly can. Let us refuse to give up, and help one another along the way as we inevitably start to falter. May we all make this journey through the shadows with a thankful faith in the coming dawn we trust awaits us on Easter morning.