Lent is time to empty ourselves for the Lord to enter
In 1996, Peter Mazar wrote the following, which impressed me then and still does:
For three days Esther fasted and Judith kept vigil, the exiles came home to Jerusalem, and the Hebrews marched to the waters of Marah. For three days darkness afflicted the Egyptians â€¦ Jonah was entombed in the belly of a fish, and Paul waited in blindness. On the third day Abraham offered his firstborn son, God came down in fire and wind upon Sinai, the boy Jesus was found in “his Father’s house,” and the man Jesus “performed the first of his signs at Cana in Galilee.” Echoing the words of Hosea, Jesus announced the three-day Passover of his death, rest and resurrection.
The Paschal Triduum, the “Three Days of Passover,” are for us days of death, rest and resurrection. We march to the waters of baptism. We keep watch for light and for liberation. For three days we climb Mount Moriah, Mount Sinai, Mount Golgotha. Those who were lost are found, and those who were exiled come home. [“Keeping Lent, Triduum and Eastertime” (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1996), 27-28]
The Paschal Triduum â€“ those three full days, which include Holy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil, and Easter Sunday â€“ are the most important days of our Church Year. So important are these days that, for hundreds of years, we, the Church, have prepared for them by celebrating Lent.
Lent is not so much about what extra things we do or what things we give up as it is how much more intensely we live our Christian lives. It is a time for doing what we are supposed to be doing every other day of the year. Our Christian call is to dispel deception, discord and desire; quell pride, revenge, wrath and ill treatment; clothe the naked, treat with humanity and compassion the sick, the exiles, the orphan, and the solitary widow. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving: these have been the three hallmarks of Lent from the earliest times. The point of these disciplines is to become ever more open to God.
Lent is a time when we fast. By fasting we allow another to eat, to sit at table and partake of even the simplest of meals. We eat less and consume less, so that others may have the basics for living. If we lose this notion of fasting, we could lose so very much of our tradition. Moreover, fasting is not simply to save our money and give it to those who have nothing to eat. Fasting also entails a stance against the shadow side of our American culture: a stance against consuming, having, and not sharing. True fasting in our time may be taking a stand against excessive possessions.
Lent is a time for prayer. As fasting is a physical surrender to God, so prayer is an emotional and spiritual surrender to God. We can use the readings for the Sundays of Lent for our meditation. They are the Word of God calling us to repentance.
Lent is a time for almsgiving. Pope Saint Leo the Great (c.450) wrote of the profound dynamic at work in almsgiving. First, he writes, there must be an interior purity: “Let all Christians scrutinize themselves and search severely into their hearts â€¦ let the swellings of pride subside, let wrath yield to reason, let the darts of ill-treatment be shattered and the chidings of the tongue be bridled.” That interior purity then looks outward to our neighbor: “Let us rejoice in the replenishment of the poor, whom our bounty has satisfied; let us delight in the clothing of those whose nakedness we have covered with needful raiment.” Almsgiving reminds us of our responsibility to care for the less fortunate.
Again, fasting, prayer and almsgiving should not be additions to the life of faith, but deeper expressions of it. Lent helps us to understand why they are important and invites us to empty ourselves in order for the Lord to enter.
We cannot experience the full power of the Easter Triduum without experiencing Lent. Lent is intended to bring us face to face with the mystery of death. Lent summons up in us the courage to stand naked before God and others as the Catechumens of the early Church removed their clothes and descended into the waters of Baptism. Lent is not a time of superficial spiritual exercises, but rather an opportunity to die to self so we can rise with Christ. The prayers for the season speak to this reality. That is what we mean by the word “conversion:” putting off the old and putting on the new.
We have in our liturgy a marvelous way to ritualize this mystery of death for the life of the world: the Scrutinies. “Scrutiny” is a very odd term for us. It probably conjures up all sorts of images in our minds and I hope that the very strangeness of the term will invite us to delve more deeply into what a scrutiny actually is.
Scrutinies are solemn public intercessions made by the community of the faithful on behalf of those who have been chosen and elected to receive the Easter Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist. This prayer for deliverance and protection has traditionally taken the form of an exorcism. While we may not personify our demons in the same way as the ancient Christians, we cannot deny that the reign of evil in our world is frightening and real. The demons of our time (to name a few) are bigotry, sexism, racism, greed, intolerance, and sexual exploitation. Demons likewise permeate our society through acts of domestic violence, child abuse, drug abuse, alcoholism, murder and rape. These evils throttle the life-breath from us. But, in the Scrutinies, we confidently proclaim God’s power to overcome all evil by the Death and Resurrection of His Son.
The Scrutinies are not some kind of dispensable formality that are meant to make our Catechumens â€“ those preparing for the Easter Sacraments â€“ uncomfortable. Rather, the Scrutinies presume that the Catechumens have reached a mature level of personal conversion and are ready to make that conversion the public property of the community. The Scrutinies are invitations to the whole Church to deepen her faith in and praise of God through the concrete situations of the Catechumens.
In very broad strokes, the First Scrutiny focuses on the individual dimension of sin, grounded as it is on the story of the Woman at the Well. The second, rooted in the story of the man born blind, addresses the social dimension of sin, the human experience of being caught in sin that is not of one’s own doing. And the third, from the story of the raising of Lazarus, confronts the most radical nature of sin, the cosmic dimension of the tyrannical, icy grip of death.
By tapping into these powerful experiences of sin and forgiveness, we can come to know how much God seeks to love us and with the help of his grace, surrender to his will.
During this season of Lent, let us together fast, pray and give alms not so that those around us will praise our spiritual discipline, but so we may invite our loving God to purify us of sin and then come and dwell with us forever.
Originally Published in the Catholic Exponent: