This coming week, as Christian believer, we begin our annual observance of Lent. Using the Lord Jesus’ forty days in the desert as a template, the penitential season is a time to prepare for the solemn celebration of the Paschal Mystery, namely, the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
This year’s Lent will be the second one within the throes of our current pandemic.
While it’s always important to have different liturgical seasons, and to feel the rhythm of the Church’s year, the pandemic makes the movement of seasons particularly important. As human beings, we need a dose of change so that we can ward off lukewarmness and spiritual boredom. The pandemic elevates such a need, as days of the week and months seem to blur together and the dynamism of life becomes strained in many souls.
This Lent, therefore, is an opportunity to mark the calendar, start fresh, and renew some things in our lives.
When things seems to merge together, some penance can help. When vitality appears strained, some asceticism can help. Such acts exist within our spiritual tradition for exactly this purpose. They have been given to us as a way to discipline our lives, get us out of spiritual funk, rip us out of the small worlds we create, help us to encounter the living God, and reorient our lives according to the dignity and joy that is ours as the children of God.
Of the many penitential practices recommended by the Church, here are only five.
The Sacraments. For the Christian believer, the sacraments are the summit of all other things. They are the principal means of grace, which is God’s life within us. The sacraments were instituted by the Lord Jesus and entrusted to each of us. These truths remind us that in our Lenten observance, we need to seek out the sacraments as best we can, all things with the pandemic considered. This starts with participating in Mass, even if we can only do so by livestream right now. It means making a good Confession, or preparing to make a good Confession (if the sacrament isn’t available), and receiving the Anointing of the Sick, if the sacrament applies to us.
Prayer. In difficult times, when we don’t want to pray, that’s the time when we especially need to pray. Before any words are even spoken, prayer is an opening up of the soul to God and the world. It’s the acknowledgement that our thoughts and feelings are not the end-all and be-all of existence. It’s a healthy act of humility that gives life to our souls. The first fruit of prayer, therefore, is hope. As such, we are called to be a people of prayer.
The Bible. The Bible contains an everlasting message that brings constant reform to the hearts that read it. While it always builds up our faith, it’s especially needed when the world seems cold and without meaning, since it’s a light that enlightens and a blazing fire that gives warmth and protection.
Holy Fellowship. As human beings, made in the image of the Triune God, we are made for interaction and friendship. Our hearts need an exchange with others. While many such opportunities have been halted and are on hiatus, there are other means to stay in contact. Technology gives us new resources and, employing safety measures, some human contact can still be possible. It’s important that we don’t seclude ourselves, remove our hearts from the ups and downs of friendships, and that we particularly seek out the fellowship of other believers, with whom we can pray, speak of spiritual truths, and commiserate.
Service to the Poor. Nothing can break cycles of melancholy faster than an active service to those around us, especially those in greater need than ourselves. As Christians, we seek to serve others, not as benefactors, but as friends and fellow recipients of God’s goodness and mercy. As we’re able, we are to serve others. Such service does not need to be in an official group or formal activity. Perhaps the pandemic has reminded us of our call to the person next to us. Our service can – and should – begin in our family, our extended family, our local neighborhood, and in our circle of friends. It can be making time for others, giving patience to those around us, making a simple phone call, delivering a meal, giving a few extra dollars, and other small acts.
In each of the above ascetical practices, we are given a sure path out of spiritual malaise and into true renewal of our hearts. This Lent, let’s truly begin a new season, turn to the spiritual power in front of us, and seek rejuvenation in God.
Follow Father Jeffrey Kirby on Twitter: @fatherkirby