I have encountered a number of people who confessed to me that they are really glad that we are into the Lenten season.
I was intrigued by their comments and I asked them why they are glad. Lent is truly a spiritual season, they said, and it seems that throughout the Lenten weeks, they are consciously aware of their relationship with God.
It’s not that other times of the liturgical year are not spiritual, but during Lent it’s as if the world around us is transformed. We are more aware that we are to be different than what the world expects from us.
We ask one another what we’ve given up for Lent, we remember to abstain from meat on Fridays and we fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. We have a sense that we are preparing for something great. Perhaps it’s the penitential nature of the season.
Throughout most of the year we rarely mention “sin.” It’s not that we sin any less during those other times, but during Lent we are asked to examine our consciences, to see what prevents us from embracing the Lord in thought and action and to seek the sacrament of reconciliation.
We are confronted with the Temptations of Our Lord in the desert and the figures of the prodigal son and the adulterous woman. We wear ashes in the form of a cross which identifies our mortality and sinfulness.
Certain individuals will counter that we are also called to examine our consciences during Advent, but in reality we are so anxious to celebrate Christmas that we rarely give proper respect to the needed preparation time. Some even begin celebrating Christmas right after Halloween!
Lent takes us on a journey similar to that of the Israelites who wandered for 40 years in the desert. We accompany the disciples who journey with Christ to Jerusalem to embrace his suffering, crucifixion and death. We journey with the church through the liturgical moments, making our way to Passion Week, celebrating the great story of his love for us.
Lent comes from an Angelo Saxon word for spring “lencten.” When we examine the root, what comes to mind is that spring begins the preparation, the budding of what will become the full blossom achieved in summer. The days begin to lengthen, offering us the opportunity to pray, fast and do charitable works.
On Feb. 1, Pope Benedict XVI released what would be his final Lenten address as pope. Referring to the Year of Faith, the pope emphasized the indissoluble interrelation of faith and charity: “The Christian life consists in continuously scaling the mountain to meet God and then coming back down, bearing the love and strength drawn from him, so as to serve our brothers and sisters with God’s own love. In sacred Scripture, we see how the zeal of the apostles to proclaim the Gospel and awaken people’s faith is closely related to their charitable concern to be of service to the poor” (cf. Acts 6: 1-4).
He continued, “Sometimes we tend, in fact, to reduce the term charity to solidarity or simple humanitarian aid. It is important, however, to remember that the greatest work of charity is evangelization, which is the ‘ministry of the word.’ There is no action more beneficial – and therefore more charitable – toward one’s neighbor than to break the bread of the word of God, to share with him the good news of the Gospel, to introduce him to a relationship with God: Evangelization is the highest and most integral promotion of the human person.”
The consistent themes throughout his papacy have been faith and charity explicated masterfully through reason. Now, in his final Lenten address, he reminds us “faith is genuine only if crowned by charity.”
Perhaps in his wisdom, the Holy Father also understood the special spiritual time that Lent provides.
It is pure conjecture on my part, but maybe that is why he chose the beginning of Lent to make his surprising announcement of his resignation, a Lenten period that would see an interregnum – a time of vacancy, the period between papacies.
All sorts of speculation accompanies his decision. There are those that offer conspiracy theories, speaking of divisions and factions among church leaders. Some have offered that the pope was pressured to resign.
I believe Pope Benedict, being the “good shepherd,” knew that the faithful would be bombarded with outlandish speculations, intrigues and fears. The one way to alleviate the anxiety that surrounds such a decision is to focus our attention on prayer and the spiritual nature from which we draw our strength.
The day Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, Feb.11, was the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, the World Day of the Sick. This was a day designated by Blessed John Paul II as “a special time of prayer and sharing of offering one’s suffering for the good of the church and of reminding us to see in our sick brother and sister the face of Christ who, by suffering, dying, and rising achieved the salvation of humankind.”
It is apparent to me that the pope either intentionally or unintentionally was offering his suffering for the good of the church, two days before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.
In this spiritual season of Lent, let us add one more petition, turning our attention to the church and the coming election of a new pope, confident that the Holy Spirit will enlighten the minds and hearts of our cardinals.