Lent brings emphasis to a simple call in a simple formula: less me, more Jesus
The season of Lent, which began this week, is based on a simple premise: We will be better off if our lives are centered less on ourselves and more on Jesus. No Lenten resolution, no good work, no penitential practice will be worth much in the end unless it serves the simple formula, less me, more Jesus.
We approach Lent with this attitude of self-denial not because we do not love ourselves. Even less should we imagine that God does not love us with all of our sins and shortcomings. God loves us so much he gave us his son to save us from sin and death. Without Jesus, we will die enslaved by sin and suffer eternal death. During these Lenten days, we hear Jesus knocking at the door. He respects our freedom and will not save us without our cooperation. We need to invite him in and make room for him in the clutter and confusion of each day.
Many ask the question as Lent begins: Is it better to give up something or to commit to some good activity during these weeks? The answer is that either can be a means to get out of myself a little and to encounter Jesus and his saving love. In fact, the church always has encouraged us to see that mortification and the practice of virtue are really two sides of the same coin for disciples of Jesus. We approach each Lenten resolution humbly, always seeing a personal encounter with Jesus as our goal.
To this end, Christians have traditionally followed a formula of prayer, fasting and almsgiving in preparation for the great feast of Easter. Each of these practices can be customized to fit our circumstances this year. Each of them can provide a space for Jesus to enter with his saving mercy right where we find ourselves now. They each help impress upon us as well that we are not able to save ourselves.
I encourage you to make time for prayer each day during Lent. Beyond devotional prayers and formulas, which do much to strengthen our faith, try to take some quiet time with the Lord. We are good at asking Jesus for help when we need it. We may not be used to waiting in quiet while he strengthens us with his loving presence and helps us see the help that is being given, if we would receive it.
Setting a time and place for quiet prayer helps ensure that it will be part of the day. There are times of Eucharistic adoration available in our parishes and communities. It is quiet there, and we can enjoy closeness with the Lord for a few minutes. With some time spent in prayer, the day has become less about me and more about Jesus saving me.
Living as disciples of Jesus Christ can be demanding, and it is the defining project of a lifetime. If we are to stick with it, that is, with an intentional relationship with Jesus, we need a certain amount of discipline. Discipline, or self-control, enables us to use our freedom to choose what is good for us and others, not just what gives pleasure or comfort in the moment.
In the Gospel, Jesus calls his disciples to self-denial, to unite ourselves to his own perfect sacrifice. Practically speaking, that often means going without things (food, drink, entertainment, etc.) that are not bad in themselves. This fasting is a healthy use of freedom. It is also an opportunity to acknowledge Jesus as our Lord and Master, refusing to be mastered by anything else, even in small matters.
Finally, the Bible reminds us that our sacrifices are not pleasing to God if we ignore the material needs of our neighbors. Pope Francis has placed a particular emphasis on the Gospel imperative to share some of what we have, including time and money, with those who are in need. The giving of alms will seem to grow naturally out of a deeper encounter with Jesus in prayer and fasting. He always sends his disciples out to share the joy of the gospel with others. He promises we will encounter him in the poor, the sick, the stranger. Our familiarity with Jesus in prayer makes it easier to recognize him in the neighbor who is suffering.
Many parishes and schools offer the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) Rice Bowl as a practical way to encourage Lenten almsgiving. CRS also provides a number of resources along with the Rice Bowl to enrich all of our Lenten practices. I encourage you to make use of the Rice Bowl for your individual and family sacrifices. I serve on the board of CRS, and I know of the responsible use of these funds on behalf of American Catholics to assist our neighbors overseas.
I also encourage you to visit the Catholic Relief Services website (crs.org). You will find a variety of helps for Lenten prayer, fasting and almsgiving that can be used by individuals and families. In particular, you will learn of the ongoing work of CRS to assist refugees who struggle daily to survive after having been driven from their homes by terror and war. Our prayers and sacrifices for them this Lent put our faith in Jesus into action and offer to our brothers and sisters hope for a more dignified life in safety.
I will be praying for all in the Archdiocese of Omaha, for a deeper encounter with the risen Lord. Please pray for me. Blessed Lent.