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Lent

Beginning on the day of Ash Wednesday, this year February 10th, the Church enters into the season of Great Lent.  It is the season of preparation for the great and holy mystery of the Resurrection of our Lord and in it we focus on two aspects that concern our religious life, that which we normally do as an active Catholic Christians and also the calling of the Church to expand our attention to the Lenten practices.

To begin with what is familiar, we see that during the Lenten season a few things change within our parish churches when we gather for the weekly celebration of Holy Mass on Sunday.  As a start the more festive colors of white, gold and green of the Christmas and Epiphany seasons have now given way to the more somber color of purple.  The color purple has come to represent for Western Catholic Christians the season of penitential preparation.  We are reminded that, aside from the Sundays and weekdays of Lent, purple vestments are also worn whenever the Sacrament of Penance is received, even if outside of Lent and also during the preparatory parts of the Sacrament of Baptism.  In fact these aspects of penance and renewal can be considered together during this season of Great Lent.

While the Sacrament of Penance is offered each and every time we gather for Holy Mass, it is during the season of Lent that we pay special attention to it.  Some parishes may include an examination of conscience as a part of this Lenten penitential
experience during Mass, or the priest may increase the amount or intensity of the penance that is assigned.  Aside from the penitential part of Holy Mass many parishes also have separate Penitential Services that occur during the Lenten season.  These services allow us to focus extra attention on the sinful parts of our lives and to seek God’s forgiveness and ask for His strength to move away from sin and to a closer relationship with Almighty God.

If this practice is not a part of your parish experience, there are certainly other ways in which you can experience it.  Each of us can spend time in prayer on a Saturday evening in preparation before going to Mass on Sunday.  An Examination of Conscience is something that someone can easily obtain on-line but there are also two wonderful Polish National Catholic sources.  Within the Mass Pew Book, on pages 1 to 7, there are various prayers for both before and after Confession as well as an extended
Examination of Conscience.  The questions asked allow us to look into our daily lives and see where we are not measuring up to the demands of our Lord.  Another excellent source is found within the P.N.C.C. Prayer Book, on the Sacrament of Penance.  From pages 53 to 70 there is a short catechesis on the Sacrament of Penance as well as prayers before Confession and an extended Examination of Conscience based on the Ten Commandments.  These two examples are wonderful ways in which we can make Lent a time of spiritual preparation as well as increased prayer.

This of course brings us to the next portion of the Lenten experience, the disciplines of Lent.  Our Lenten discipline is to be a time of increased prayer, increased giving and increased fasting.  Notice that I use the word “increased.”  It is certainly hoped that these disciplines are already a part of your daily life as a Catholic, but Lent calls us to go a step further.

One aspect of this is the liturgy of the Church.  During the Lenten period, the Church adds services to allow us to enter more deeply into the passion and death of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and to consider all that He has done for us.  The Stations of the Cross and Bitter Lamentations both serve this purpose and encourage us, as members of a congregation to gather together to contemplate this  great mystery of our Lord offering Himself for our salvation.  We must also remember that even if we cannot be together at the parish church, we can still benefit greatly from these services.  Again both the Stations of the Cross and Bitter Lamentations are found within the P.N.C.C. Prayer Book and can be read individually as a private devotion.  For example I have tried to make it a habit to celebrate each of these services, one day a week in the chapel at the National Church Center.  I do this by myself and it allows me to spend some extra time in contemplating on the readings as a time of spiritual reflection.  In this way it is a different experience  than celebrating together at the church.

Along with celebrating these services, either congregationally or individually, we should spend a little more time in private prayer.  It is at this point we can ask the questions.  Do you pray in the morning upon rising?  At night before going to bed?  Before and after meals?  Before and after any important part of your life? Do you pray for your spouse and children?  For your other family members and those who are a part of your daily life? We should all give this some thought.  I too can say that sometimes, I forget to pray in each of these situations, but what it takes is discipline.  Like many of you I need to remind myself. I try to do this by keeping my Prayer Book always close at hand where I can see it.  That way even if I don’t use the Prayer Book while I pray, it acts as a strong reminder to make prayer a part of everything I do.

The next Lenten discipline is giving.  Now I am certainly sure that most of you are already giving to your parish as well as to other good causes, but again Lent asks us to increase our giving.  One way to look at this is together with another Lenten practice of “giving something up” for Lent.  Whatever you might give up, see what the cost of that item is and then
donate this amount as well.  And of course Lent is also the time for us to consider our giving in accord with the blessings we have received.  We can ask ourselves, can I sacrifice more to better help my parish or other good causes?

Our last Lenten discipline is fasting.  As many of you know this usually entails the abstinence from meat on the Wednesdays and Fridays of Lent as well as the reduction of food on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.  We perform the discipline of fasting to remind ourselves that it is often from our bodily desires that sin arises.  But the discipline of fasting goes beyond this as well.  As we fast from food stuffs, we are also reminded that there are other, often much worse, things in our lives from which we should be fasting.  In this regard, there really isn’t any better teaching than that from the great fathers of the Church, St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great.  These fathers remind us that even in their times of great austerity in the Church, fasting always called us to something greater.

“For let not the mouth only fast, but also the eye, and ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all the members of our bodies.  Let the hands fast, by being pure from violent stealing and greed.  Let the feet fast, by ceasing from running to the unlawful spectacles.  Let the eyes fast, being taught never to fix themselves rudely upon handsome countenances, or to busy
themselves with strange beauties.  For looking is the food of the eyes, but if this be such as is unlawful or forbidden, it mars the fast; and upsets the whole safety of the soul; but if it be lawful and safe, it adorns fasting.  For it would be among things the most absurd to abstain from lawful food because of the fast, but with the eyes to touch even what is forbidden.  Do you not eat flesh?  Do no feed upon lasciviousness by means of the eyes.  Let the ear fast also.  The fasting of the ear consists in refusing to receive evil speakings and calumnies.” (St. John Chrysostom, On the Priesthood)

“Do not however, define the benefit that comes from fasting solely in terms of abstinence from foods.  For true fasting consists in estrangement from vices.  ‘Loose every burden of iniquity.’  Forgive your neighbor the distress he causes you; forgive him his debts.  ‘Fast not for quarrels and strifes.’  You do not eat meat, but you devour your brother.  You abstain from wine, but do not restrain yourself from insulting others.  You wait until evening to eat, but waste your day in law courts.  Let us fast an acceptable and very pleasing fast to the Lord.  True fasting is the estrangement from evil, temperance of tongue, abstinence from anger, separation from desires, slander, falsehood and perjury.  Privation of these is true fasting.” (St. Basil the Great, Homily on Fasting)

So these are the practices and disciplines of Lent.  While it may seem like quite a lot, we must remember the word, “increase.”  During this season, let’s let our faith, our discipline, our prayer, our fasting, our giving, our piety “increase.”  No one should ask how much, or worry about comparing to others.  Let it just all be “increase,” that on Easter Sunday, the day of Resurrection, we will be even more ready to meet the resurrected and glorious Lord.

 

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