By Aidan McIntosh
Is there any other part of the Christian Liturgical Year that’s more exciting and powerful than Lent? With its placement in the Roman Rite’s calendar, Lent serves as a bridge in between two seasons of ordinary time; the first after Epiphany and the second after Pentecost. Through Lent, we can grow stronger and closer to Christ so that, as we return to ordinary time, we can carry on good prayer habits and continue to practice ways to extend our faith beyond a mere 40 days.
The beginning of Lent is a particularly exciting time, as we begin our walk through a spiritual desert and become excited, albeit intimidated, about our sacrifices and resolutions. This excitement, for many, has been short-lived as the unprecedented and rapid spread of COVID-19 quickly took over preoccupations and worries. Now that Masses are other liturgical services are closed to the public and social distancing is encouraged, if not mandatory, how can we make this a valuable Lent where we grow stronger with Christ and overcome our perceived obstacles?
During any difficult situation in Lent, it’s important to remember the three pillars of Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26)
It’s easier to make excuses for a lack of prayer than it is to make prayer a key component of our day. Prayer doesn’t need to be complicated and complex – Christ commands against long, vain prayers in Matthew 6:7 – because the Father already knows our needs, but it does need to be a way to grow in an intimate, deep, and inviting relationship with Him.
As we’re at home, most of us have additional free time in our days and a growing sense of boredom. We can spend this time in leisure, like watching Netflix in our pajamas, or we can focus on building a domestic church in our homes by inviting Christ in with open prayer. This doesn’t require praying the Liturgy of the Hours through iBreviary, but it does entail a greater, more common commitment to laying down our thanks and supplications to Him.
Even if Mass on Easter will be celebrated privately and only livestreamed, we still need to grow stronger in our understanding and love for Christ to truly celebrate His glorious resurrection this Easter. Meditating on daily Gospel readings or praying the Lectio Divina is a perfect way of seeing His love everyday that doesn’t consume much time, rather building faith and discipline.
Prayer is important if we aim for the heavens. Jesus didn’t get through His 40 days in the desert, tempted by Satan, without prayer. We can’t get through the most difficult times in our lives, like right now, without prayer either.
“Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kind?” (Isaiah 58:5-7)
Culturally, Catholics immediately associate fasting with abstinence from food, as we abstain from meat on Lenten Fridays. The Israelites, in this chapter in the Book of Isaiah, asked why God hadn’t answered their prayers despite their fast, and God reveals to us the true meaning behind fasting. How good and how real of a fast is it to merely practice abstinence in our dietary habits while not changing our other sinful habits?
St. Paul writes in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (12:26), about the Church. A whole lot of us — Christian or non-Christian — are suffering right now. What good does coldness and bitterness play in a time when the community has to do all it can with its limited resources? There comes a need to fast from sinful habits, from coldness towards brother, sister, and neighbor, from the darkness of our own hearts as everybody in the world is suffering in some degree from this pandemic.
Abstinence from our own earthly, worldly desires is necessary – more so than the canonical requirement to abstain from meat on certain Lenten days in these strenuous times. Christ took the Cross for our salvation and our freedom from this world’s corruption. We need to take up our own crosses, recognize that there’s more to this life than we think, and accept the necessity of sacrifices and abstinence. However, unlike how we return to eating meat after Lenten Fridays, we cannot return to sinful practices and the hatred of our own hearts.
“For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9)
The giving of alms is usually done in the context of community service and volunteer work, something that is of great abundance at our university. Many of us, including myself, hoped to do more service this season, but these plans have been disrupted as a result of the pandemic. The good news is that almsgiving doesn’t stop when in-person contact stops.
Small acts of service are no less worthy in the eyes of God than large acts of service, and these small acts do not have to be purely monetary and material. In this time of lockdown, a healthy small act would be to call a friend who’s lonely or sick, or simply a person who you haven’t been in much contact with lately, and catch up and make sure that they are doing okay. A text as simple as “How can I pray for you today?” will work wonders.
By showing love for our neighbors and friends and refusing to let these difficult situations create ruin and havoc, we can emulate Christ as He calls us towards discipleship. The giving of alms can be done digitally and physically, and we should use these unfortunate circumstances to challenge ourselves to become better disciples.
These are very difficult and unprecedented times, but they will pass. However, Christ is eternal, as is our call to love Him, emulate Him, and understand Him. If we put no effort into overcoming these circumstances through greater consecration, then how can we be strong after Lent and after this pandemic passes?
The Apostle James writes,“My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2–4). COVID-19 has created trials for all of us. If we are blessed to be healthy, let’s make the most of this Lenten season and become better lovers and followers of Christ.