One purpose of liturgical prayer in the Church is the sanctification of time. The movement of the day is sanctified in the Liturgy of the Hours: Morning Prayer to praise God for another day, Evening Prayer to place ourselves under God’s mantle as darkness falls; each time of prayer has its meaning, and each follows the rhythm and cycle of life. Predictable, to be sure, but each day has its unique moments of light and darkness. On a larger scale, the same is true of the liturgical year. The Church honors the dignity of creation by offering reverence to the changing of the seasons and finding God’s grace in the change.
As a season, Lent universally falls in the ’tween that bridges winter and spring (at least in the Northern Hemisphere). That fact may be true every year, but no two Lents are alike: It isn’t that the prayers and the celebrations change, but we do. As winter moves toward spring each year, we turn inward to see by the light of grace what has changed within, just as the seasons have changed around us.
Foreheads stained by ashes, knees stressed by the Way of the Cross, stomachs brought to growling by fasting — all of these mark the typical Lent.
But this year is not a typical Lent.
Winter is here.
Fingers are quick to point, tongues are quick to wag, and words are quick to turn to vitriol. It’s a colder, deeper winter for the Church than we’ve experienced in a long time.
Everywhere we turn we see suffering within and without the Church, like the scattered detritus of fallen leaves. The stolen innocence of children worldwide who trusted their priests. The fearful discouragement of priests and people who trusted their bishops. The fallen purity of the priesthood and episcopacy and widespread ennui in every diocese. More new “nones” than nuns. Bombs in churches. The persecution of faithful Catholics who want to serve both God and country: When did it become an insult to note, “The dogma lives loudly within you?” The scandalous hypocrisy of officials who are “personally opposed, but …”
In this long winter, faith-filled, churchgoing people of every ilk are compelled to worship at altars set up by public ideologies: Abortion “rights” and non-binary gender alternatives voraciously consume our liberties. The world was aghast when ISIS blew up monuments of religions other than its own, but the same world watches silently as the proselytizers of so-called progress do the same with deeply held tenets of any faith that dissents from the hedonistic dogma of today. The apostles of tolerance allow no alternatives. What was, a generation ago, right and just, even virtuous, is now labeled bigotry and hate speech.
Giving up chocolate seems so trifling this Lent. No, this is a Lent to enter deeply into the heart of Jesus. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, “By the solemn 40 days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert” (540). However, in today’s long Lent of the Church, it is critical to recall that it was the Holy Spirit who led Jesus into the desert, as it had been the Father who led the Hebrews into the desert long before. God has not stopped leading us into the desert. There’s a good reason for that; every now and again, we need a desert experience.
The desert. The 40 days. The first Lent. The ’tween time after the wintry hidden life of Jesus and before his breathtaking journey to Jerusalem. It was for Jesus a season of increasing temptation, with all the tantalizing promises of that temptation: the guarantee of physical comfort and both worldly and spiritual power. It is this to which the Church unites herself in Lent: not the triumph of Resurrection, but the agonizing self-awareness of being in relation with the Father, yet tempted and tantalized, mocked and derided. Acquiescence to evil is but a breath away. Trust in God seems unreachable.
The desert brought new focus and urgency to the ministry of Jesus. From the desert Jesus emerged with a pure heart and with resolute determination to announce Good News, no matter the disappointments that lay around him: release to captives, sight for the blind, liberty to the oppressed. The Kingdom of God is at hand!
Lent. The Church unites herself to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.
This long Lent in the Church is the gripping invitation to a humble, repentant cry to heaven from a renewed poverty of spirit: to feed us with grace instead of bread; to give us a servile spirit instead of a thirst for honor; to empty us of all that keeps us from submissive, receptive, total, surrendering, abject trust in God’s providence.
Jesus was not born of a priestly family, never called himself a priest, and never led Temple worship. His most memorable act in the Temple was to cast out the cashiers who were corrupting the sanctity of the place and who were concerned more with the profits of the day than the prophets of old! Jesus seemed to understand that there was something wrong with the religion of his day or, more accurately, with the way the leaders of his religion were running things. He cursed the fig tree, a well-known metaphor for the Temple, when it failed to produce fruit. He labeled as whitewashed sepulchers those who cited rules and obligations but showed no compassion or love. He chided those who sought attention for their piety or made themselves comfortable while ignoring festering poverty around them.
Angry at times, critical on occasion, unhesitating in pointing out hypocrisy, Jesus remained a man of deep faith who never abandoned a religion he knew to have serious problems. Far from avoiding the Temple, he pointed out to those who would seize him in the garden that he had taught daily in the Temple precincts. He never stopped anyone from entering the Temple or fulfilling the demands of his ancestors’ religion. From an early age we see him going up to Jerusalem for high holy days and feasts. He held to his faith, despite the worldliness, political surrender and the tepid faith and legalism of its leaders.
There is a reason for his actions: He himself was the authentic Temple, the dwelling place of God in our midst. As the prophets had looked forward to the moment when nations would stream to the Temple mount, Jesus promised that he would draw all men to himself.
Jesus emerged from the desert with an urgent message and with actions behind his words: teaching, healing, feeding, reproving sinners and comforting the afflicted. When Lent ended, he walked out of the desert and into the waters of John’s baptism, announced that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and confronted the sickness of his ancestral religion and that of the hearts of people.
This is indeed a long Lent in a cold winter for the Church. Still it remains, as ever, the time for us to unite ourselves with the mystery of Jesus in the desert.
And then, purer and more reliant on grace than on ourselves, to confront evil with new boldness, announce the Gospel with new urgency, change hearts and enflame souls. Hearts thus changed will change the world.
But first, Lent.
Msgr. William King is a
former vicar general of the
Diocese of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.