How to get the most out of Lent
February 28, 2023
Q: Lent has just started. What are these next 40 days really all about? How can we get the most out of this season of Lent?
Lent is a yearly invitation to look into our hearts and take stock of how our hearts are directed towards God and His saving plan for us. And then to also notice the things that maybe are not of God or that don’t lead us to be faithful disciples of Jesus and to begin to sort that out. As the Prophet Joel reminds us, it’s primarily a work of the heart. It’s easy to get into a question of what am I going to do for Lent and what are my practices going to be? Those are also good. But the Lord is speaking to us in our hearts and inviting us to give up our sinful ways and come back to Him.
We can look at it as a preparation for Easter, these days of Lent. For those of us who are already baptized, when we celebrate the Easter Feast – the biggest feast day of the Church calendar – we will be invited to renew our baptismal profession of faith. We want to be able to do that wholeheartedly. To allow ourselves to be claimed once again by our risen Lord as His holy people, which He presents as a pleasing offering to our Heavenly Father. We want to be part of all of that. And I think we have to admit that since last Easter, we haven’t been as faithful; we haven’t been as wholehearted in our prayerfulness and love of neighbor as we might be. So, it’s an opportunity during Lent to get back in shape as a disciple of Jesus Christ and as someone who has been given life in Him through the power of baptism.
Q: It’s easy to ritualize Lent and do something like give up chocolate. But doesn’t Jesus ask for more? Doesn’t He want us to go in His direction, share in His glory, and ultimately, doesn’t He want our hearts? So how can we avoid ritualizing Lent?
It’s a good question. We don’t want to check off boxes to say we’ve done something for Lent. At the same time, it’s good to think, “How is this going to be different? What are we hoping to experience?” So, right off the bat, it’s good to think that Lent isn’t really my project. This is God’s project that I’m being invited into for my salvation and for the life of the world.
As we’ve already said, this is an invitation that touches us at the level of the heart. And so, if any of the practices in which we’re involved, which the Church encourages, are designed to help us be more wholehearted in our following of Jesus, which means we follow him in self-denial. We follow him in prayer. We follow him in charity, in love, in the love of neighbor and that has to be externalized so we’re not just thinking nice thoughts or having a warm heart for people that they never know about, but from the grace that touches us in our heart, the grace that comes from Jesus’ death and resurrection, we’re invited to act in a way consistent with what it means to be someone redeemed by Jesus, someone who’s a follower of His.
Q: The message running through this is a call to conversion and discipleship. Conversion and discipleship are two themes that enrich the Journey of Faith and your goal that all parish become missional communities.
Yes, it all harmonizes, as it turns out. The Journey of Faith, which all our parishes have been involved in for a year or so, is not something apart from the invitation of Jesus, which we hear in a variety of ways throughout the liturgical year. We hear it in a very powerful way during the season of Lent. The Lord invites us to recognize that we are in need of healing and that things are not just all set for us as we’re experiencing it now. No matter where we are on our own journey of faith, where our parishes are, the Lord is calling us to more. And that more is, we understand in our faith a process of conversion. It’s leaving some things behind, letting go of some things that are holding us back, or maybe revving ourselves up a little with the help of grace to be a little more dedicated to living and preaching the Gospel.
I think that what we’re being asked to experience across the archdiocese is this process of conversion. My hope is that this Lent, as we understand a little bit more about what the Journey of Faith is asking of us and also what it’s offering us, we might enter into this season a little bit more thoughtfully, prayerfully and find more benefit during these weeks than we may have experienced in the past.
Q: Readings for the second half of Lent are taken from the Gospel of John. It’s a crash course in the life of Jesus. Christ is presented as the healer and life-giver. How do we apply these messages to daily life, especially during these 40 days of Lent?
In the first half of the season, the daily readings are reminders that we have sinned, that we’re broken and suffering because of the effects of sin. Either original sin or our own sins, usually together. The invitation is to turn away from that and turn to the Lord for healing. We won’t be able to do that effectively if we don’t know who Jesus is and don’t really take the time to become reacquainted with Him as our savior, our brother.
At the same time, we meet Him in the Church as the risen Son of God. So, there is a mystery that runs all through what we’re doing during the season of Lent. And it comes to its climax in Holy Week and Easter. We call it the Paschal Mystery. It’s the mystery of experiencing the brokenness of sin, repenting to the extent that we are able, with the help of God’s grace, and then turning away from sin and towards Jesus and embracing Him as our crucified and risen Lord. So, we know both things about Him. Jesus conquered sin through the power of the cross. He entered into the evil of sin and its effects as he endured the crucifixion. But he’s not dead. He’s risen from the dead. And through the power of His resurrection, He’s able to offer us in the Church, through the sacraments, through our life together, healing and a new life. The purpose of Lent is not only to give up things – we give up what might be weighing us down or leading us into sin or too much self-indulgence – but then we allow ourselves to be filled up with the mystery, with the power of the risen Jesus.
Our pastoral vision and the archdiocese, and really what the Journey of Faith is trying to encourage, is that we each have a deeper encounter with the risen Lord in our life together in the Church. And not just in our imagination but in our experience in the Church, the sacraments, our prayer and our works of mercy together. So, as I said, sort of weed out or let go of the things that maybe preoccupy us that are less than that powerful experience of life and the risen Christ.
Q: Many people seek a very personal encounter with the risen Lord.
That’s what we’re made for. And whenever we do listening sessions on any topic – we did it about our pastoral vision some years ago – people express in a variety of beautiful ways that they’re hoping for a deeper relationship with the Lord. We’re convinced that’s what the Lord wants also. So, it’s a great consolation to know we’re on the same page and we’re really made for it. It was really the purpose of His coming among us, sent by the Father, His carrying the cross, His crucifixion and His resurrection, so that in our time now, we might have the experience of being saved by Him and the experience of a relationship with Him.
Q: Live Lent Together returns again this year. Many people in the archdiocese participated last year and are doing it again this year. Small faith communities and small groups are powerful.
Yes. In a time when a lot of statistics show us diminishment in the Church, the small group experience is something that we’re finding to get some traction, we might say, to engage those who are already active in the faith, as well as those who may not be so active in the Catholic faith, or maybe they’re not even connected to the Catholic faith in a particular way.
As we start Lent, I want to thank all those serving as small group leaders for Live Lent Together in our parishes. The experiences people told me about last year were really beautiful and powerful. And I’m so grateful to those who accept the role of being leaders and those who have signed up to be part of the small groups.
There’s an opportunity this Lent to focus on the Eucharist. The bishops of the U.S. are encouraging us in a Eucharistic revival over several years. We’re right in the middle of that. This harmonizes very well with what we’re doing on our Journey of Faith. Since we’re going to be bringing people together for faith sharing and prayer for these weeks of Lent, we thought focusing on the Eucharist would be good and helpful. Some groups will be using other materials. The beauty of this experience is just being together, looking reflectively at some aspect of our faith, and praying together.
We’re not asking people to be part of these groups for the rest of their lives but for the weeks of Lent. What we have found, though, is in a number of places, the groups have continued to meet on and off throughout the year because they have such a good experience together. So, it’s in the nature of the Church from the very beginning that the Lord calls us to an experience of life in Him. But He doesn’t call us as individuals. Each of us has a very unique and personal relationship with the Lord, but it’s always in the context of the community of believers and the two aspects of discipleship, the opportunity to be with Jesus and to experience his presence more deeply. That’s what we find in these small group experiences. While Jesus offers us that, He’s also asking something of us, that we’d be willing to share our faith with others, which happens, I think, very naturally and beautifully in a non-threatening way in these Live Lent Together groups. We have the experience of the leaders inviting people to participate, and those who receive the invitation have the experience of being noticed and invited to be part of something.
I look forward to hearing about the experience of Live Lent Together again this year. Everybody participating in the groups has my thanks and the promise of my prayers during the Lenten season.