The Church’s liturgical year follows the natural cycle of human life and nature since the liturgy is a celebration of life. Accordingly, in the Church, we pass through different seasons to help us celebrate the different aspects of birth, growth, death and new life. Among the seasons, which is the one that many Catholics find burdensome? It is the season of Lent.
Unlike Advent, which has the theme of hope, and Easter, new life, Lent is focused on repentance.
The message of repentance itself does not seem so appealing or attractive. The problem with the world today is that it does not want to hear anything that is negative. People do not like to hear the truth. They do not like to know the facts. We are not supposed to let people hear the truth in case they get discouraged or demoralized. So, we must only speak about the good things that people do and the success stories. But we should not talk about the weaknesses and shortcomings of the individual, the organization or even the Church. This is a generation that wants to feel good, be affirmed and be positive. That is why topics on sin, morality, sexual ethics, Christian conduct, proper attire, etc are not welcome.
Furthermore, with relativism and individualism, no one wants to be told that he or she is not doing the right thing. It is a matter of opinion and preference. We cannot agree on what is right, or good in all matters. That is why the world is so fragmented because everyone holds his or her view to be the correct one. Even among Church members, we cannot agree on policies or decisions of the Church. In every issue, there are as many proponents as there are opponents. Each one has his or her own point of view and argument. The saddest part is, no one is willing to give in.
Besides the unattractive message of repentance, the means are even more unpleasant. Firstly, both the first reading and the gospel invites us to fast. “Order a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly, call the people together, summon the community, assemble the elders, gather the children, even the infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his bedroom and the bride her alcove. Between vestibule and altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, lament.”
How do we speak of fasting and penance to a world that demands instant gratification? Our whole lifestyle is one of speed and immediate response. If I want something, I must have it now. Information is now available at the push of a button. With modern technology, going anywhere is made easy, whether in getting a taxi or a car or a bicycle. Transport will come in a matter of minutes. And because life is short, everyone is desperate to enjoy as much as they can now, without sparing a thought for the future. That is why we are living in a consumerist society. Penance and fasting appear to be joy killers.
Many of us fast, but for the wrong motive. We fast not for spiritual growth but so that we can look attractive, earn the praises and attention of others. Such fasting makes us even more self-centered, proud, arrogant and insecure. This is what the Lord said, “When you fast, do not put on a gloomy look as the hypocrites do: they pull long faces to let men know they are fasting. I tell you solemnly, they have had their reward.”
Secondly, we are called to good through almsgiving and works of charity. Again, in a world that is self-centered, when the philosophy is about me and what I can get out of it, why should we do good? Charity would demand our time, money and resources. It calls for self-sacrifice. Today, we are all busy, either climbing the social ladder, building our business enterprise, furthering our career or enjoying ourselves because we feel we have worked hard and so we deserve to have the leisure and luxuries of life. Making time to do social work means taking time away from our business, career and rest. Many of us are not ready to sacrifice our precious time to take care of the poor and those in need. We are not generous with our money and resources because we want to accumulate more and more wealth.
There are some people who engage in social work and in charity, but for not so noble motives. They give in order to attract attention and earn praises from men. They want the world to know how generous they are and how much money they give to this organization and to that charity or church. Some give for the sake of publicity, so that the world will know how civic minded their organization is so that they get to enjoy their patronage. So it is a win-win strategy. Jesus said to His disciples: “Be careful not to parade your good deeds before men to attract their notice; by doing this you will lose all reward from your Father in heaven.”
Thirdly, the invitation to prayer perhaps could be the only attractive thing in the season of Lent. Even then, most of us are too busy and occupied to really make time for prayer and to meditate on the scriptures daily. We are busy with activities even if they are good activities. Some would try to increase the time for prayer simply because the Church says so. They try to attend one of the weekday masses, pray a rosary or attend the Stations of the Cross. But the heart is not there. It is just another activity because the heart is restless. There is no real communication or relationship with God or growing in self-awareness of our faults and wrong motives. This explains why some people are scandalized that those who go to Church so often and even attend daily mass can, in their actions, be worse than those who do not practise all the spiritual exercises that they do. It can often be just another attempt to let people know how holy and prayerful we are. That is why Jesus warned us about the hypocrisy in prayer. “And when you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites: they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at the street corners for people to see them. I tell you solemnly, they have had their reward.”
Indeed, it is about our attitude and approach to the season of Lent that really matters. Fasting and prayer are meant to transform us so that we have the love of God in our hearts and this love is expressed in good works. Otherwise, if we have the worldly approach to the spiritual exercises, we are no better than the scribes and the Pharisees. Our lives will not be transformed and there will be no renewal. The way of the world is about self, not about God and others. This is what the Lord is warning us as we begin the season of Lent. We must start well and in the right spirit. As the psalmist says, “A pure heart create for me, O God, put a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, nor deprive me of your holy spirit.”
What is the right attitude to the season of Lent? It is a celebration of spring, the beginning of new life. We must approach this season with a desire to let the old self die so that the new being can rise up. The season of Lent is about renewal of our spiritual life. It is about giving up our sins “so that in him we might become the goodness of God.” It is to recognize that our sins have brought us shame and misery. The prophet said, “Let them say, ‘Spare your people, Lord! Do not make your heritage a thing of shame, a byword for the nations, ‘Where is their God?’ Then the Lord, jealous on behalf of his land, took pity on his people.” Therefore, it is a time of grace as St Paul says, “As his fellow workers, we beg you once again not to neglect the grace of God that you have received. For he says: At the favourable time, I have listened to you; on the day of salvation I came to your help. Well, now is the favourable time; this is the day of salvation.” So let us hear the Word of God, “Come back to me with all your heart, fasting, weeping, mourning.” Isaiah added, “Let your hearts be broken not your garments torn, turn to the Lord your God again, for he is all tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in graciousness, and ready to relent.”
It is a time to be reconciled with God, with our neigbours and with ourselves. St Paul said, “We are ambassadors for Christ; it is as though God were appealing through us, and the appeal that we make in Christ’s name is: be reconciled to God.” Without reconciliation, there can be no peace, joy and unity. Reconciliation entails dialogue, mutual understanding and mutual forgiveness. Through forgiveness, we are set free from our past and our mistakes. With the psalmist, we say, “Give me again the joy of your help; with a spirit of fervour sustain me, O Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall declare your praise.”
So let us adopt the right spirit in living out this season of Lent, seeing it as something positive and life-giving. It is a time to consider what are the essentials of life. That is what fasting and penance will help us to do. We have too many things cluttering our lives. We must give up those things we do that destroy our peace and love in our family. Life is more than making money and having pleasures. It is about love, caring, affirming and encouraging each other. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving must be seen as means to attain the Spirit of Christ through a life of detachment and discipline, a life of intense communion with the Lord and a life of mercy and compassion towards our fellowmen. When “your your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.” Indeed, when we do for the right motive, great is our joy and reward because we become less focused on ourselves but on loving God and others.