As we come to Lent this year, we cannot help but remember how we began Lent last year at the start of the pandemic. The time of COVID-19 was coming upon us, and little did we understand how it happened, nor how long we would have to endure the pandemic. Lent 2021 is yet another Lent we will have to pass through in the time of coronavirus. Yet, this time gives us a real opportunity to prepare for Easter, the time when we renew our faith.
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, in his Lenten message for 2021, has given the theme, “Lent, A Time for Renewing Faith, Hope and Love.” How important these basic virtues are to our lives! How can we live without our faith? How important it is that we see our faith as critical to our lives.
During this time of COVID-19, we see people in a certain sense losing their faith — faith in government and sometimes even faith in ourselves since we are wondering how can it be that the help we long for is not coming. But we cannot lose our faith in God. Our Holy Father says, “Lent is a time for believing, for welcoming God into our lives and allowing Him to make His dwelling among us.” How important it is that we recognize that God is with us, even during these difficult times.
Hope is what sustains us. As Pope Francis says, “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, who patiently continues to care for His creation which we have often misused.” Many times, Lent is described as the “springtime of the soul” as God’s creation gives us the four seasons. As we move out of winter, a time of some dreariness, we come to springtime, which restores our hope. We see the plants coming out of the ground and growing, the trees beginning to bud, and a promise of their leaves returning.
These are signs of hope, and so it is for us at Lent. It is a time when we renew our hope to make sure that we never lose our faith, which is the foundation of our hope. The Holy Father goes on to talk about love. He tells us that “Love is following in the footsteps of Christ in concern and compassion for all and the highest expression of our faith and hope.” Lent certainly gives us an opportunity to express our love for others, as well as our love for God. As we look for opportunities to assist others during Lent, we find that these opportunities are not lacking. At the beginning of Lent, we have the annual national Catholic Relief Services collection, which allows the Bishops of the United States, in the name of God’s people, to assist the poorest people around the world.
We also see our own Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens and other diocesan agencies that are assisting people each day, most especially to restore food security during the pandemic. We also launch our Annual Catholic Appeal at the beginning of Lent, which supports all of the good works of the Diocese. Certainly, these opportunities are very good choices for our Lenten practices.
Lent this year will begin in a somewhat different way than what we are used to doing. The imposition of ashes, as the Holy See has suggested, should not take place with the priest touching the forehead of those receiving ashes. Rather, this year the priest will offer the prayer for blessing of ashes and will then sprinkle the ashes with holy water. He will then address all those present and only “once” say, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Following this, the priest cleanses his hands, puts on a face mask, and goes to the place where ashes will be distributed and then will sprinkle the ashes on each person’s head without saying anything. In fact, this is the prevailing custom of distributing ashes in Europe, that ashes are not imposed as a cross on the forehead of the person.
Already, even before Ash Wednesday, I have received letters of complaint from some people who saw something in the media that reported the Church would be using a different method of giving the sign of penitence during Lent. We must remember the words of the Lord Himself, which we read on Ash Wednesday, which tell us: “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
“When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you” (Matthew 6: 5-8).
And so, if others do not see our ashes, it does not mean that we are not professing our faith. What it does mean is that for the sake of ourselves and others during this time of pandemic, it is better that we do not have the possibility of passing the contagious virus from one person to another because the priest touched the foreheads of so many people who come forward to receive their ashes.
Lent is a time of penance and mortification. Besides the good works that we try to do, we need to mortify our senses. We need to deaden our senses, as the word mortification means. We do this so that we can make more room in our lives for more worship of God and love of neighbor. Mortification can come in two ways, passive and active. It is passive when we accept the difficult things that come our way. And it is active when we choose to do something or not to do something that is pleasurable.
During the Coronavirus pandemic, the passive mortifications have been multiplied many times over, beginning with having to wear a mask, getting ourselves tested for the virus, keeping social distance, and, for some, not being able to attend Mass because of health reasons. These are passive mortifications. If we accept them in the correct spirit and offer them to the Lord, they become true signs of our Lenten journey. At the same time, we can choose certain mortifications — the giving up of something that we like or doing something that we do not like to do — all active signs of mortification that can, again, help us to concentrate on the presence of God in our life. Mortification is never directed toward self. Rather, mortification opens ourselves up to God by allowing ourselves to forget ourselves and find the presence of God in our life, especially during the season of Lent when we are preparing ourselves for Easter.
Easter is the goal of Lent. These six weeks of preparation, hopefully, will bring us to a Lent where we can enjoy more of the great liturgy of Holy Week. As we all remember, last year Holy Week truly was curtailed. Only the Lord knows how free we will be this year to participate in the various activities of Holy Week. Please God, the availability of the vaccination pace will pick up, making it safer for many to attend services during Holy Week.
But whatever happens, we cannot thwart our Lenten observance, because it is in Lent that we put out into the deep recesses of our own souls recognizing our need for God, trying to make space for God in our lives by re-concentrating ourselves on the Paschal Mystery. It is this Paschal Mystery that reminds us that Christ died in order that He rise from the dead at Easter to give us the promise of eternal life