IN LENT an urgent call to repentence goes out to all Christians: "Behold, now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation." We hear the chilling words, "Remember man that you are dust, and to dust you will return." This is the only time in the liturgy when the faithful are addressed not as brothers or by their own names but simply as "man".
It is a necessary preparation for the joy of Easter, Cardinal Newman, preaching at St Mary the Virgin in Oxford on April 15, 1838, said, "And yet though the long season of sorrow which ushers in this blessed day in some sense sobers and quells the keenness of our enjoyment, yet without such preparatory
season, let us be sure we shall
not rejoice at all.
"None rejoice at Eastertide less than those who have not grieved in Lent. This is what is seen in the world at large. To them one season is the same as any other, and they take no account of any. Feast day and fast day, holy tide and other tide, are one and the same to them. Hence they do not realise the next world at all."
Lent in old English meant "spring", a time of new birth and life. One of the psalms is "I set about sweeping my soul." Spring cleaning is not popular because poor old human nature prefers to let sleeping dust lie, or at best to sweep it under the rug.
We don't like to be reminded of our faults, old grudges, ancient hates, quarrels and jealousies, hidden habits of sin. It is a time to renew our encounter with God in his sacrament of love confession.
'Penitential season' is a phrase traditionally used to describe Lent, but it has been used os often that it has become smooth like stones in a fastflowing stream. We know that Christ told us to do penance but the tough reality of this often escapes us.
Someone said to me recently, "I remember when Lent was really Lent." It meant, he said,a time for special prayers, usually sad ones, for mournful hymns sung without organ, and as an altar boy he had to wear black, keeping his smart red cassock for Easter.
Fish on Friday was an essential, he gave up .sweets and put pennies in the Lenten box for black babies. On Good Friday his grandfather would have black toast and black coffee, the origin, he thought of "black fast". The lessons of charity, contribution, temperance, he learned during those 40 days have lasted him, he said, for a lifetime.
Today things are different. Fasting laws, for instance, have been considerably relaxed. Yet the same spirit is there. special remembrance of Christ's suffering for us.
It is a time of quiet realism, as we identify ourselves with Christ going to his crucifixion. It means something different for
each one according to the love that inspires us, what we eat, drink, smoke, duties at work and home. patience under difficulty. We are asked to give up very little food, but we should try to give up our feuds.
Penance should hurt. There is a story of a monk who was told by his superior to put beans in his shoes as a Lenten mortification. He obeyed but boiled the beans first! Traditionally there are three ways to keep Lent — prayer, fasting, almsgiving. Prayer is the deliberate striving of our mind towards God, the cultivation of the most important relationship in our lives.
Looking at it purely on the natural level, self-denial in food is healthy. Most of us are overweight
Through almsgiving we dig into our own substance and bless others with our blessedness. Christianity has always looked upon alms-giving as a giving to God. We say that we live for God and eternity. In almsgiving we show it.
Scripture readings during Lent deal with three main points, penance to obtain forgiveness, thoughts on Baptism, Christ's struggle. They accentuate the transitory nature of our earthly life. We are called to continual conversion to Christ.
"My son, give me your heart,"
St Francis de Sales writes that it does little good to change a person from the outside, there must be the deep internal attitude of giving oneself to God. St Paul said, "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me ... who loves me and gave himself for me."
Even in this season of penance we are told that Christianity is a religion of joy. G. K. Chesterton wrote that even the Fall of Adam brings this out: "The Fall is a view of life. It is not only the only enlightening, but the only encouraging view of life.
It refers evil back to a wrong use of the will, and thus declares that it can eventually be righted by a right use of the will. Every other creed except that one is some sort of surrender to fate."