Emmitsburg Council of Churches

The Gift of Lent

Father John J. Lombardi

"March Madness" or Lenten Gladness: Which one will you choose?

The NCAA basketball finals occur later this month (nicknamed March Madness) but, take that "invective-incentive" and overcome any "madness" and choose Lenten Gladness, if you know what Lent is really all about.

Lent--from the old English word, meaning "Spring"-should be just that, a re-birth, a new way of life in Christ. Usually regarding Lent we think "doom and gloom" and call to mind fasting and ashes and so forth. But think of Lent as a New Springtime of your spiritual life.

Q: What do Tom Cruise, the Dalai Lama and Pope Benedict have in common? A: They all give up things, renounce and live differently. Tom Cruise gives up medicines (he's a scientologist, ex-Catholic); the Dalai Lama gives up active sexuality in his celibacy, and the Pope gives up pleasures for sacrifices. You see, it's in the blood, renunciation, that is. The beginning prayer of Ash Wednesday was: "By our Lenten practices of self-denial may we live more in Christ…." All this is for a New Springtime-to further embrace Jesus Christ Our Lord, and Lent is a time of intense, focused preparation for the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus at Easter.

But today some modern Catholics have trouble with renunciation, thinking that its "old fashioned," against the Gospel, or not loving. I just saw an advertisement for a book, smartly packaged called "Chocolate for Lent." The book, on the face of it, has two problematic "issues": (1) marketing and stylistic advertising has become overly part of religion, and, (2) "You can have it all" mentality downplays sacrifice and renunciation which is essential to our Faith.

Artists renounce so shouldn't we? Just recently the Director of the Metropolitan Museum of art, Philippe de Montebello, just announced that the "Met" Museum unfairly took art treasures (undocumented, possibly looted) from Italy. Thing is: Italy worked out a deal to "loan" the treasures to the Met in exchange on an "ongoing basis." You see, when we renounce things and make a confession we will, sooner or later, receive a reward, and, further, bring justice about!

Today's world, though, sometimes tries to make a "negation of negation." That is, some people today want to negate the power of negation-giving up, renouncing, sacrificing, or do away with the Cross. Wait a minute; right now in Florida hundreds of baseball player in spring training are giving up their wives and/or families; luxuries of home life; regular meals and foods and sexuality. Why? Because they are training for the season and, hopefully, the grand prize, the World Series. Now, Catholics have a higher calling--Heaven and holiness. We are in training too, in Lent, and that requires giving up, renouncing, kinda like a baseball player. Repentance means renunciation of sin and unhealthy attitudes and possessions and relationships. Repentance, though a "tough word" and practice, is essential to the Gospel calling. But think: If I am sick, I need strong medicine to help me. That is a form of repentance; negatively by turning from unhealthy food and lifestyle, or sin; and, positively by turning to the Lord's Medicine and His Kingdom. This is basic common, supernatural sense, although unpopular today.

In this Sunday's Gospel Jesus calls us to "Repent, for the Kingdom is at hand." Repent means to turn strongly away from something that blocks our way from the Lord and toward more perfect discipleship.

Jesus Himself says (as in last Thursday's Lenten reading at Mass), "If anyone wants to be my follower, he must deny himself, pick up his cross daily and follow Me" (Lk. 9:23). This is, or should be, a hallmark (Hall of Fame?) verse for all. We must deny ourselves.

We must remember, though, as some remind us, that Lent and renunciation (of self, of anything) is precisely about a relationship-an encounter with the Living Lord Jesus. When a man and a woman fall in love and then date or court, and, eventually, marry, they must, in their relationship, give up lots of things to focus on one another in total love, They give up other persons, time, talent and treasures, they give up personal desires and even possessions for one another. Shouldn't we do the same for the Ultimate Spouse-Jesus Christ, especially if something or someone is blocking our way to a more intimate relationship with Him? Think of it this way (as in any human relationship): give up to gain. So, consider giving up some food and fast and thereby connect with the Savior's Forty Day-Fast in the Desert. Give up some sleep, wake up earlier or in the middle of the night and pray in holy silence as the Savior Himself did. Give up love and human affections, as the Lord did by following the Path of the Cross. These are all costly things to do, but think of it in terms of strengthening and binding your relationship with the Lord.

Think of giving up sin. Go to confession and trust in Jesus' Divine Mercy. Give up some of your possessions (spring cleaning ring a bell?!) and give to the poor. Give alms to the sick and dying--Jesus' friends here on earth.

You've heard that saying: "Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater "? In our modern/ist world today, some Catholics "don't want to do Lent" or disciplines or renunciations. Yet, it is paradoxical. Some of these persons may admire the multi-cultural customs of far off and long-ago cultures, and yet disagree with Catholicism's culture of traditions and Lenten practices. Some may believe in exotic, esoteric Eastern religions while immediately disagreeing with the rich Roman Catholic Faith. Some may hoist up high various expressions of love and relationships-even harmful ones like same-sex unions-but denigrate age-old and classic spiritualities of Catholicism's love expressions, especially if these involve self-denial and renunciation. Isn't this paradoxical? Perhaps it is Western indulgence-that we have too difficult a time in repenting and renouncing when we have so many chocolates and possessions and hobbies that occupy our time and soul's energies. And, if it's "all about love as some modernists today say, then, ok: We need disciplines (fasting and charity and Truth) to direct our desire (love) in the proper ways. If our love is not perfect toward the Lord or our neighbor, we need to train and correct and purify it so that it is holy and holistic. Disciplines direct desire-we must always remember that.

Yes, we must "update" our disciplines and practices and breathe new spirit into them and always remember that it's about God, not us, but we shouldn't do away with the tough aspects of our Faith, especially if the Lord Himself, and saints to boot, commanded them. Lent, self-denial and renunciation is essentially, imitatio Christi, imitating Christ. In other words, since He renounced, shouldn't I, we? The "genius of Catholicism" (aided, of course, by the Holy Spirit!) is just that: we replicate and represent in our Faith, Liturgical Seasons, and spirituality the Life of Christ and the Earthly early Church.

Look: what teacher, or parent, would say "Good" if they're child or student got a grade of a "C" on their report card-average? Hopefully none! Rather, they would help the child correct the fault to master the topic and gain in wisdom, right?

As Catholics with a wealth of spiritual practices to embrace this Lent, we must always be on guard, though, against self: For instance, maybe you are saying, "this Lent I will fast; I will give up chocolate; I will do good to others; I will go to Mass," etc. What do all these good-intentioned disciplines have in common? "I" or self. While these are good we must do all these for 1) God, 2) the Church, and 3) the soul's further embrace of Jesus that will lead to more love, not less. Paradoxically, the more we sometimes try to do holy things, the more self gets involved or seeks attention or gratification. It's kinda like a cat chasing its tail: it will never get it. When a self tries to rid of self there is still self-investment and self-promotion and self-seeking of some subtle sort. We by ourselves will never rid ourselves of inordinate self unless we rely on God and grace. We must purify ourselves of self-glory and give God the glory. Ergo/therefore: we should not not do practices just because a "self" is doing them, otherwise we wouldn't' get anywhere or closer to Jesus. No, we must embrace these self-renunciations while 1) relying on God's grace to help us escape the viscous circle of cat-chasing-tail, 2) allow God to heal and work in us more deeply as we strip ourselves of deeper layers of self, and 3) persevere to become selfless and, in the newly revealed, freed soul, more Christ-like.

Sin, inordinate possessions and faults, and unhealthy behaviors disfigure our souls and tarnish us as disciples. God Who is Beauty, rather, helps and beautifies us. Some great theologians like St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas, Hans Urs von Balthasaar (a favorite of Pope John Paul II) and Pope Benedict intimate that God is "Enrapturing Beauty." He is not just a "static object" but is, rather, an alluring and entrancing Lord of Glory, Light, Radiance and attractive Love. The disciple, upon realizing this in deeper ways by infusing it into the soul, actualizes the Blessed Trinity's pull and fusing power, His engrafting and assimilating of us into Him so that "we participate in His Divine nature" (II Pt. 1:4). Kinda' just like being attracted to a human person, but now, in a paranormal, supernatural and transpersonal way, the desirous devotee is delighted by the Divine and wants to enter into the interior of it's Beloved God, as St Thomas Aquinas says. Lenten disciplines are loving responses to this love relationship which seeks to strip the self and selfishness away from the soul so that we may be more like God Himself, the Glorious One. Moses said upon tasting the delight of the Lord: "I will let My Beauty pass before you" (Ex.30:19).

Another classic way to Lenten Gladness is to think of the classic stages of spirituality, namely: Purification, Illumination and Union. Purification is leaving sin and evil and inordinate desires behind. We cannot possibly follow the Lord more spiritually if we hang on to these. So: purify to Unify (become one with the Lord). Illumination occurs when we have lightened our bodies and souls of "drag" (sin)-think of trying to fly a kite with a brick tied to it, and then releasing the brick from the string: the kite soars Heavenward. Closer to the enlightening Sun/Son, God will illuminate us in more divine ways of discipleship.

Regarding Mass and Jesus the healer, St Thomas Aquinas said, "I am sick going to the Physician." Lent is a healing time of stripping away all the diseases and toxins of the soul and going to the Divine Physician.

What do I need to renounce in my life? What practices and disciplines in "Spring training" do I need to embrace to Love the Lord more? How can I cultivate a loving, lasting relationship with the Lord my God? Lent is a time to repent-for this Jesus was sent: to help us turn away from sin, and turn to Him, the Blessed Trinity.

That's what saints do…why not you?

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi