As a baseball fan, I always delight in this time of the year, Spring Training. The reporting of the players to the Major League training camps in Arizona and Florida conjure up visions of the sunshine and warmth of the coming days of summer filled with a whole season of exciting baseball games. Yet, in addition to the raising of such pleasant sentiments of the sport, the beginning of Spring Training also serves to help me grow in my faith life. That is, it helps me to gain a greater appreciation for the Season of Lent. For me, the alignment of the timing of Spring Training with Lent during this time of the year is not simply a coincidence of the calendar. Rather, the purpose of the two seasons share some elements of congruence, which result in a symbiotic appreciation for what this time of year is all about.
One of the key elements of Spring Training has to do with helping the players “get in shape” for the arduous and grueling grind of playing a season of 162 baseball games – more games than any other professional sport. Thus, time is devoted to practices, which strengthen and bolster the stamina of the athletes. There are special exercises, drills, running, batting practice and session upon session of pitching. The same could be said of the season of Lent. This is a time when we embrace special spiritual exercises and disciplines, which strengthen us for the rigorous challenge of conversion. The penances and sacrifices are like “spiritual calisthenics” which ready us to embrace the “meatnoia” or “change of heart and mind” by which we turn away from sin and commit ourselves ever more deeply to believing and living the Gospel.
Another element of Spring Training has to do with building a sense of teamwork among the players. While baseball is a sport that has components that focus on individual skills, these skills must be pooled in a cooperative sense to achieve success. Teamwork is critical to winning games, so baseball managers strive throughout Spring Training to foster a spirit of unselfishness and working together. The season of Lent also shares this promotion of unity. Lent is not something we do alone. The Liturgy of Ash Wednesday emphasizes this communal aspect of the season in its first reading from Chapter 2 from the Book of Joel, where the prophet proclaims, “Call an assembly, gather the people, notify the congregation,” and this solidarity is highlighted by the fact that everyone in the worshipping assembly is marked with the same sign of the cross in ashes. We are reminded of the need to support, challenge and encourage each other to greater holiness as a Church and not just as individuals.
Yet another element of Spring Training has to do with spending a great deal of time reviewing the “fundamentals” of the game. There are multiple drills that are meant literally to imprint the core components of baseball into the mind and body of each player so that performing them becomes instinctive or like “second nature.” There are drills for bunting, fielding, sliding, positioning in the field, and covering and throwing to bases, etc. Such practice serves as a reminder that certain parts of the game are foundational. Lent, too, is a time when the faithful are led in a move “back to the basics” of our tradition. Emphasis is placed upon such things as the reading of the Sacred Scriptures, the Examination of Conscience and the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. In the Liturgy of Ash Wednesday, the “Three Pillars” of Lenten spirituality are featured in the Gospel of Matthew’s presentation (6:1-6, 16-18) of teaching of Jesus on the practices of almsgiving, prayer and fasting.
Still another element of Spring Training is the enthusiasm that comes with the presence of “rookies” or new players of the team. Many of the young players recently drafted and serving in the minor leagues are given an invitation to attend the “Big League” camp and try to win a spot on the team roster. The arrival of the players with their youthful energy and potential often inspires the veteran players to a renewed dedication to their game. This same phenomenon takes place in the Church in the season because it is a time of the celebration of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. These newcomers to the faith, who are in the process of preparing for entry into the faith through the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist, also bring with them a passion and vitality which affects the broader Church. Their fresh attraction to the faith often inspires long-time adherents to a new appreciation and dedication to a life of holiness.
Lastly, one of the best elements of Spring Training is the way in which it instills hope. Every team comes to the beginning of a new baseball season with a sense of optimism for the year ahead. Every team sets out without any losses, and there always is a sense that “this just might be the year” of abundant wins and a trip to the World Series. The same sense of hope permeates the season of Lent. While the Lenten journey entails a lot of sacrifice and hard work, it always is pointed toward the celebration of the Paschal Mystery. There always is a sense that dedication to the discipline and penance of the “daily grind” of Lent will lead toward the promise of the Resurrection – the ultimate victory over sin and death and the “championship trophy” of Eternal Life.