My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
Lent will very soon be upon us. As we look forward to this season which prepares us for the glory of Easter, we recognize that it is a penitential season. It is the season when we hear the plan that Jesus has given us in the Gospel, that we pray, that we fast and that we perform works of charity.
First should be prayer. Clearly it is part of the work of Lent. Prayer, indeed, is work. Prayer takes effort. Prayer does not usually come easily to us. We must use every form of prayer available to us during Lent: verbal prayer, mental prayer and contemplation. All of these types of prayer have one common goal which is to put us in union with God. Prayer is the way in which we communicate with God, lifting up our minds and hearts as we learned long ago in the Catechism what prayer is all about. Lent gives us an opportunity to deepen our prayer, to reinstate our prayer if we have been lax in prayer. Prayer is the beginning of our Lenten journey.
We also hear that fasting is important to the Lenten observance, although the rules of Lent have lessened in years with only Ash Wednesday and Good Friday being days of total abstinence ,when we must fast and also abstain from eating meat, and the Fridays of Lent are days of abstinence from eating meat. Sometimes we forget that the goal of fasting is to put us in union with God; it is not really a sense of following a rule.
St. Basil the Great, in a homily on fasting, gives a great insight into what it is about. “Fasting is as old as humanity; it was legislated in Paradise and was the first command that Adam received, ‘You shall not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.’ You ‘shall not eat’ is the divine law of fasting and self control. If Eve had fasted from the tree, we would not need this fasting now. Those who are well have no need for the doctor but those who are sick. We have been injured by sin, let us be healed by our repentance.”
St. Basil the Great says it all. We cannot appreciate the goodness that God has given to us unless we step back and refrain from enjoying the fruits of creation. Only then will we be able to understand what is good for us and what is wrong. Lent gives us that unique opportunity to engage in our own self-legislated fasting from what keeps us from recognizing the presence of God in our life, by giving up the things that we have made take the place of God.
Finally, works of charity are truly the heart and soul and the manifestation of our faith during the Lenten season. Pope Francis, in his 2014 Lenten Message, entitled “He became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich,” (2 Cor 8:9), gives us a deep insight into some of his first words to us as our new Pontiff. The Holy Father said he wanted a “poor church for the poor.” Those words have been discussed greatly during this past year. Perhaps in this year’s Lenten Message, he gives us a deeper insight into what he meant. Already in his first Apostolic Letter, “Joy of the Gospel,” he said, “Poverty is essentially a theological and not a social or economic concept for the Christian.”
In his present Lenten Message, Pope Francis gives us a deeper insight into the true meaning of poverty. First, it is the poverty of Jesus Christ, Himself, who humbled Himself to take on human flesh that we might become rich. This is the grace that we have been given by God the Father, who gave us His son who emptied Himself, that “By his poverty you might become rich.”
The richness that Christ gives to us is the richness of grace, the ability to have a union with God. It is by His poverty, however, that Jesus frees us and enriches us, as told to us by Pope Francis, “What gives us true freedom, true salvation and true happiness is the compassion, tenderness and solidarity of love.”
Christ’s poverty, which enriches us, is His taking flesh and bearing our weaknesses and sins as an expression of God’s infinite mercy to us. These words remind me of a question once proposed to Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, the great apostle of charity in our own day. When she was asked, “Who are the poor that you work for?,” she responded by saying, “The poor I work for are those who have no one to love them.” That definition of poverty gives us many people to whom we can show our charity, because poverty is not only material, as Pope Francis says in his Lenten Message, but it also can be moral and spiritual.
Hopefully, in our Lenten practices, we can alleviate the material destitution which is normally called poverty as the Holy Father says, as it is caused for those living without the basic necessities of life. The many opportunities given during Lent are important. For instance, the Catholic Relief collection and many other things can be helpful in showing our elevation of material destitution.
As the Pope goes on to say, “There is moral destitution which consists in slavery to vice and sin.” This may be our own case or in those we love in our families. The only way to combat this moral destitution is to accept the love of Christ which dissipates this type of poverty. Finally, spiritual destitution is, as the Holy Father states, the “experience when we turn away from God and reject his love.” This certainly is something that we must consider in our own lives and in the lives of those around us.
Lent gives us an opportunity to prepare ourselves for the grace of Easter. And so, as we put out into the deep in our Lenten journey, we ask the Lord for the grace of making this journey well and that along the way we might become poorer so that we can, indeed, become rich. Our Holy Father ends his letter by saying, “May the Holy Spirit, through whom we are ‘as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Cor 6:10), sustain us in our resolutions and increase our concern and responsibility for human destitution, so that we can become merciful and act with mercy.”