By Father John Catoir
There is a famous quote from St. John Chrysostom that draws attention to the supreme purpose of Lent; namely, the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ. “Every year we celebrate Easter, the greatest and most shining feast of the Liturgical calendar.”
From the beginning, the Lenten Liturgy has been filled with references to joy, not only because it is a time of preparation for the Resurrection, but also because our purification through prayer and fasting brings a special form of delight to the soul.
We need to think of Lent as both a time of joy and a time of penance. This is not a new idea. Gregory the Great, who was pope at the turn of the sixth century A.D., emphasized the theme of joy. He spoke of the two-fold path before us: the way of life that leads to joy, and the way of death that leads to misery. He quoted from the first Psalm to make his point: “Happy the man who follows not the counsel of the wicked.”
Lent is a 40-day period devoted to prayer, fasting and almsgiving. It is designed to help us focus on the mystery of our redemption. Through it all, we are called to live joyfully because of the knowledge of God’s love. We fast because there is always a need for penance.
Think of Lent as a musical prelude to the joyful symphony of Easter. The entire celebration lasts 50 days beyond Easter Sunday, right up to Pentecost Sunday, the birthday of the Church.
During this Easter cycle, we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, who came down upon us on the birthday of the Church. The ultimate celebration comes when Jesus returns to us at the end of time.
Fasting helps us to free ourselves from the things of this world that diminish our desire to put first things first; namely the love of God, the love of neighbor and love of self. Fasting is particularly helpful for those who are addicted in some way: to drugs, or one of the vices. Think about it: greed is an acquisitive spirit, anger is a lust for vengeance, jealousy is the constant fear that someone is taking from you what you think is rightly yours, envy is sadness over the good fortune of another, and lust is an inordinate attraction to sex. We want to grow in virtue.
Almsgiving helps us to cultivate a generous spirit; it strengthens us as we strive to love God above all things. Abbot John Chapman, a great spiritual master, wisely said, “The only way to pray well is to pray often. Pure prayer is in the will to give yourself to God. In prayer, you never have to force feelings of any kind.”
Jesus is our role model. He prayed and fasted for 40 days in the desert, before he began his public ministry. “I have set an example, that you should also do as I do.” (John 13:15). Love is the supreme law and the ultimate purpose of our Lenten discipline.
When Jesus entered His public ministry, He was scorned, humiliated and betrayed by one of His own. He carried His cross, leaving us a legacy of courage, perseverance, hope and the promise of eternal joy.
“In this world you will have many troubles, but cheer up and take heart, for I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
Father Catoir, a native of the Brooklyn Diocese, is a retired priest of the Diocese of Paterson, N.J.