When I was a kid, starting on approximately the day after Christmas, my Dad would begin a daily countdown to Lent. He would get a bit excited. I always thought he did it to torture us. Why did we need to be thinking about it so long? Why the heck would he be so happy about it—Lent was miserable! Plus, you know we weren’t picking what we were going to give up until Ash Wednesday morning and then would try to change it later that day when it got too hard.
When I was in high school, our Diocese used to provide what was one of the most formative Church experiences throughout my whole, entire life—Service to the Suffering. Hundreds of high school kids would converge on the campus of St. Gabriel Parish throughout the Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday). We would gather for prayer in the morning and then be sent out to do charitable work—we’d go to Marlboro Institution to care for the buildings and grounds (every kid who went there has AMAZING stories), inner city Trenton to clean up back allies, a CYO camp to clean up, nursing homes to visit, and all kinds of other good work. After the work, we’d return to the gym and observe the Triduum liturgies as a community of young people. Liturgically correct? No. But, man if it didn’t mean something. It made an indelible mark on the hundreds of kids (some of them non-Catholics and some exchange students that we brought with us) who were present. We encountered Christ broken for our hurting world, and then encountered Christ made whole in the celebration of the Liturgy. It was powerful.
Even with my dad’s excitement about it, my experience of Service to the Suffering, nine years of Catholic elementary school, and six more years of Catholic higher education, it wasn’t until I was working with the RCIA (the adults who are in formation to become Catholic) that I really “got it.” I got why Dad was always looking forward to Lent (it wasn’t as sinister as I thought as a kid).
Lent is a forty day period originally designed to prepare those who would be baptized to train their ears to Christ’s voice, to echo it forward, and to allow Christ to root out of them whatever wasn’t worthy of a New Creation in Baptism. Forty is the allotted time for testing and preparation in the Bible–Noah’s Ark, Moses’s time before God called him, the people of Israel in the desert, Jesus in the desert… God really likes the desert apparently–probably because there are no distractions out there.
All Catholics renew our baptismal vows at Easter Mass, so Lent is preparation for us, too. We’re called into the “desert” to confront temptation, acknowledge the things that tempt us for what they truly are, and discern what it is that we really want. It’s a chance to walk through our hearts with Christ; to see what distracts us from actual happiness and let it be crucified on the Cross and drowned in the waters of Baptism so that we can rise with Christ, renewed. At the end of the forty days, we are ready for something big–to live differently and boldly after allowing God to refine us.
LENT IS AWESOME.
My boss and I begin singing, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year…” as Ash Wednesday approaches. The prayers, Scripture readings at Mass, and liturgies throughout Lent and the Triduum teach us more about who we are as a church than any other time of the year. They expose the heart of why Jesus came to earth, why we need God, and what our lives can be when we partner with God. If we allow it, Lent can be life-changing.
Fast, pray and give. Make a point to see suffering around you and do something about it. Make a point to spend a lot of quiet time with Christ—and listen. Give up something that you will miss and unite your discomfort with the people in our world who never have what you gave up for only forty days. Participate in the offerings of your parish; try Stations of the Cross, go to Bible Study, volunteer to help the poor, go to Confession, go to your diocese’s Chrism Mass and to your Triduum celebration. And pray for and welcome the Catechumens and Candidates who will become united with us in the Sacraments at the Vigil. Then, go ahead and try to tell me that it’s not the most wonderful time of the year. 😉