Hope … and the Lent that Never Ends?

Homily for the First Sunday of Lent: True fasting must be the enemy of every kind of evil in our lives.

Andrei Petrovich Ryabushkin, “Noah’s Ark,” 1882
Andrei Petrovich Ryabushkin, “Noah’s Ark,” 1882 (photo: Public Domain)

One year ago today, on the first Sunday of Lent in the year of our Lord 2020, I stood right here and preached about the three Lenten penitential practices: fasting, prayer and almsgiving.

I talked about challenging ourselves to consider taking our fasting, prayer and almsgiving a little further than we had the year before. The Lenten journey should challenge us, I said. Following Jesus into the desert shouldn’t be too easy.

I had no idea just how much harder the way was about to get, not only for those of us following Jesus, but for everyone. 

Each year we begin this Lenten journey in the hope of celebrating the coming Easter season “with greater joy than ever.” Joy is hard to measure, but last Easter, for me and probably for quite a few of us, felt like joy was at a record low!

No palms on Palm Sunday. No Holy Thursday foot-washing. No Good Friday adoration of the wood of the cross. No Easter Vigil darkness and fire and candles. No burst of light and ringing of bells at the Gloria. 

No Masses at all throughout the entire Easter season and beyond. Cardinal Tobin, in a recent pastoral letter, called it the “Great Eucharistic Fast.”


Noah and the Never-Ending Lent?

Fasting from the Eucharist for all of Easter left many of us feeling as if Lent never really ended, just went on and on. Like being stuck in time. Like an insect trapped in amber. And of course it wasn’t just liturgical time that seemed to be on hold. Everything was on hold.

And now here we are again at the start of another Lent. Many of us are tired. We keep hoping for better times, but they always seem just over the horizon.

It’s a feeling I imagine being familiar to Noah, whom we find in the first reading at the end of his ordeal, having emerged from the ark, standing on the face of a new world, gazing up at the rainbow, the sign of God’s new covenant with humanity and all the animals never again to destroy all life on earth with a flood.

What God said to Noah in Genesis 7 was “I will send rain upon the earth 40 days and 40 nights” — just like Jesus fasting in the desert for 40 days, and the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years, and of course the 40 days of Lent. That’s partly why we’re reading about Noah on this first Sunday of Lent — because of the 40 days.

Imagine sheltering in place with the sound of rain drumming on the roof from Ash Wednesday to Holy Week. Now imagine that sound finally stopping. We might think Noah supposed his ordeal could be nearly over. Ah, but God hadn’t said how long the flood would last. Forty days turned into 50, 100, 150 … over five months, and the waters showed no sign of subsiding.


God Remembers His People

But God remembered Noah, and sent a wind blowing over the waters, and then they began subsiding for more than another five months, until the ark came to rest. And then came the business with the raven and the dove, trying to determine whether the crisis was truly over, whether it was safe to end the lockdown.

In the end Noah and his family emerged from the ark over a year after they entered it. Forty days of rain turned into an ordeal lasting 370 days. Last year, 40 days of Lent turned into an ordeal that in some ways is still ongoing.

But God hasn’t forgotten any of us, any more than he forgot Noah. The pandemic has been devastating — half a million deaths in the U.S. and counting — and while it’s not over, the numbers are plummeting, thanks to behavior, acquired immunity and vaccines. We will emerge from our ordeal, just as Noah did.

We have the Mass again, thank God, and the Blessed Sacrament. And here at St. John’s we can look forward this Lent to really celebrating Holy Week and the Easter Triduum with renewed appreciation and perhaps greater joy than ever.


The Source of Our Joy

I hope we all remembered, though, in those dark days of the last year that the source of our joy as followers of Jesus is something that can’t be canceled or suspended by pandemics or lockdowns. 

The source of our joy is Jesus Christ himself, who, as St. Peter says in the second reading, was “put to death in the flesh” and “brought to life in the Spirit” so that “he might lead you to God.”

Jesus leads us to God always. He calls each of us to constant communion with himself in prayer. The Blessed Trinity dwells within each of us always, so long as we are in the state of grace — sanctifying grace that we first received through baptism, which saves us, St. Peter reminds us, as Noah’s family was saved in the ark from the flood.

Our Lord has not promised us bells at Easter or palms or ashes. He hasn’t promised that we will always have regular access to the Mass or the sacraments. The Mass and the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, are crucially important — the source and summit of our spiritual lives — and yet many Catholics throughout history and around the world today have gone long periods of time with no access to the Mass or the sacraments.


Lent Is Not a Self-Improvement Program

What our Lord has promised is to be with us always. Always! Christ in you, the hope of glory, is the unfailing source of our joy — in Lent as well as at Easter — and I find I appreciate that in a special way when other channels of joy and sources of comfort have been, like so many things over the last year, taken away.

Which is part of what Lent is all about. The fasting and abstaining part — not just on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, but all the things we choose to give up for Lent: chocolate or caffeine, soft drinks or alcohol, snacking between meals, movies and television, social media and computer games, eating meat, having sex, whatever it is. 

We don’t give up these things to earn points or feel good about ourselves. Lent is not a self-improvement project or a weight-loss program. We do hope to improve during Lent, but not ultimately to improve ourselves. Our Lenten self-denial must be joined to prayer because only God’s grace can make our self-denial spiritually fruitful. 

We want to develop greater self-control, which is something that can be done by human effort, without special grace from God — not just to have more self-control, but to be better equipped to resist our appetites or passions or habits whenever they conflict with God’s will. We give up created things in order to draw closer to the Creator.


Giving Up Good Things—and Bad

We sacrifice to God things that are good in themselves. I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with talk about giving up sinful things for Lent, like taking God’s name in vain or looking at pornography — as if, come Easter, we can go back to sinning, like a dog returning to its vomit. We’re obliged to flee from sin all the time, not just at Lent.

And yet for our Lenten sacrifices to mean anything we must be willing to give up our sinful habits too. St. Basil the Great warns: What good is it to fast from meat but devour your brother with your words? What good is it to abstain from wine but become drunk with anger or fear? True fasting must be the enemy of every kind of evil in our lives.

St. Basil’s teaching comes straight from the book of the prophet Isaiah. To Israelites wondering why God seems not to have taken note of their fasting, Isaiah retorts: You fast only to quarrel and fight — the fast I choose is to set free the oppressed, to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and clothe the naked.

Those are scolding words, and we all need scolding — but maybe this Lent in particular what we need even more is hope and encouragement. So many have become discouraged and lost hope. 

Lent is a season of penitence, but not a season of despair. It’s a season of hope. God calls us to rend our hearts, but he never wants us not to have the peace of Christ reigning in our hearts.


A Lenten Challenge for 2021

Here’s a Lenten challenge for 2021: What if we give some thought to how people all around us are hurting, and how sometimes we might be part of the problem — and what we can do to be part of the solution, to show Jesus to people who badly need to see him?

Pope Francis, in his Lenten message for 2021, acknowledges:

In these times of trouble, when everything seems fragile and uncertain, it may appear challenging to speak of hope. Yet Lent is precisely the season of hope, when we turn back to God … In Lent, may we be increasingly concerned with ‘speaking words of comfort, strength, consolation and encouragement, and not words that demean, sadden, anger or show scorn.’ In order to give hope to others, it is sometimes enough simply to be kind, to be ‘willing to set everything else aside in order to show interest, to give the gift of a smile, to speak a word of encouragement, to listen amid general indifference.’”

I want to leave you with a Lenten message widely ascribed to Pope Francis. I don’t think it’s actually him, but it sounds something like him, and it expresses some of what I want to say here.

Fast from hurting words and say kind words.
Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.
Fast from anger and be filled with patience.
Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.
Fast from worries and have trust in God.
Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity.
Fast from pressures and be prayerful.
Fast from bitterness and fill your heart with joy.
Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others.
Fast from grudges and be reconciled.
Fast from words and be silent so you can listen.