Lent is upon us again – that special time of the year when we prepare for the most important Christian celebration of the year: Easter. From the earliest times of Christianity, Easter was also set aside as the time of the year when the Church welcomed new members through Baptism and welcomed back members who had placed themselves outside the Church because of serious sin (such as murder or adultery) or had left the Church. Easter, then, was a special time when there was a celebration of Christ’s victory of evil and death and, more concretely, of faith overcoming sin in our own lives.
In the lead-up to such an important annual celebration, there developed a period of preparation for this most important celebration every year. Moreover, it meant that those who were part of the Church already and had not committed serious sin could join themselves in solidarity with those who were preparing to enter or re-enter into full communion with the Church. In actual fact, it brought to mind to those who are already in the Church that, though they had not committed serious sin, they still had to struggle and battle against sin also and could always do better in their relationship with God, others and themselves.
It is for this reason that the Church turned to the traditional Jewish practices of prayer, almsgiving and fasting as means by which we can prepare ourselves to celebrate Easter in this season of Lent. Looking at these three practices, they can be seen as representing the three kinds of relationships we all have in life: God, others and ourselves respectively. Most of us are familiar with the practice of fasting whether from food, drink or some other form of enjoyment. Fasting is a great way in which we discipline our bodies and remind ourselves that self-denial can do more good for us than pleasure and, certainly, sin.
However, Lent is much more than only suffering through some form of penance. In fact, we’re really missing the point if Lent is only about suffering for suffering’s sake; it is ultimately about growing stronger in our relationship with God and others – the two great commandments of Jesus: love of God and love of neighbour. That’s why it’s a good idea to incorporate some prayer into what we do for Lent to help us focus on God and as well as some form of charity towards our neighbour during Lent. We should come out of every Lent in some way stronger in our relationship with God and with our fellow neighbour.
As with every Lent, the Pope has issued a letter to help us focus our efforts this Lent. In this year’s message, Pope Francis bases it on the first words of James 5:8 “Make your hearts firm”. In choosing this as a theme for his message for Lent this year, Pope Francis is asking us not to let our hearts grow cold. In asking that our hearts not grow cold, Pope Francis is asking us to pay attention to indifference as the opposite of love. Often we associate hate as the opposite of love but indifference is as bad as hate because indifference comes out of a heart that grows cold, that does not feel, that has no passion or love.
Pope Francis points out that indifference is something that we are especially prone to particularly if we live with comfort, health, popularity, independence: while these things are not particularly bad in themselves, they can often muffle out the voice of God, the needs of our neighbour and the importance of our spiritual welfare. Pope Francis calls us to hear afresh the prophets who will appear in the Mass readings of Lent who will challenge, provoke and shake us out of our complacency if we pay attention to what they are saying. Pope Francis is calling us back also to the Sacraments particularly the Eucharist and to recall that, because we make up one Body, we should not be indifferent to each other’s suffering and needs. Even the saints in heaven, Pope Francis points out, though they are in the complete joy, peace and communion with God, the saints are not indifferent to the needs of this world but still accompany us all on the journey of life.
Finally, Pope Francis speaks of how indifference can lead us to feel powerless when confronted with human suffering in our world. The Pope calls us not to underestimate the power of prayer particularly when united with many others in prayer, nor small yet concrete acts of charity, nor reminding ourselves of our need for God in overcoming our limitations; all linked to those key Lenten practices of prayer, almsgiving and fasting.
Pope Francis finishes by inviting all to live this Lent as a time of training for our hearts. May we find our hearts at the end of Lent stronger, more generous and more loving; open to God and our neighbour.