MAKING A GOOD LENT
The Roman Martyrology heralds Ash Wednesday with these words: “The day of ashes and the beginning of the most holy fast of Lent.”
This past Wednesday we began our Lenten journey towards Easter with the solemn service of Ash Wednesday. We received the imposition of blessed ashes on our foreheads as an acknowledgement of our mortality and as a sign of penance: “Memento, homo, quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris—Remember, O man, dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.”
During these next six weeks we join in communion with the whole Church on earth in a more concentrated, heartfelt exercise of the works of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. We freely withdraw from many of the lawful pleasures of daily life for the sake of growing richer in the things that pertain to God.
The Mass readings for Ash Wednesday give us a good perspective on the both-and of Lenten discipline: Lent is to be lived in both its communal dimension and its private/personal dimension. The Lesson from the Prophet Joel, Chapter 2, emphasizes the communal dimension. The whole assembly of the people is summoned forth to participate in the public fast. “Blow your trumpet in Sion: sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly, gather together the people, sanctify the church, assemble the elders, gather together the little ones and them that suck at the breasts: let the bridegroom go forth from his bed and the bride out of her bride chamber. Between the porch and the altar the priests the Lord’s ministers shall weep and shall say; Spare, O Lord, spare Thy people: and give not Thy inheritance to reproach.” (Joel 2:12-17a)
The Gospel Lesson from Matthew Chapter 6 emphasizes the private/personal dimension: “Take heed that you do not your justice before men, to be seen by them: otherwise you shall not have reward of your Father who is in heaven...And when thou dost alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doth. That thy alms may be in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret will repay thee...But when thou shalt pray enter into thy chamber and, having shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret will repay thee.”
Without an interior disposition of heart towards God, external observances will avail us nothing. Each person must do his part to be converted to God, to know himself more truly as God knows him, and that must happen necessarily in the space where it’s just “God-and-me”.
In regard to the communal dimension of Lent, we have the traditional practice of attending daily Mass during the days of Lent. The Mass formularies we have took shape for the most part during the 4th-6th centuries. During this period it was the custom in the city of Rome to celebrate daily Mass each year with the whole people during the 40 day preparation for Easter. This was done with great ceremony. The faithful would gather in one particular church with the Pope and the clergy and then process through the streets to another church where the Holy Eucharist would be celebrated. The readings and prayers of the Mass were highly instructional for those people who were preparing to be baptized on Easter Eve, particularly the daily Masses on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. For the assembly of the faithful, hearing again these yearly instructions served as re-enforcement for their own Christian profession. Daily Mass attendance throughout Lent and carrying over into the Masses each day of Easter Week is an excellent way for us to live the communal dimension of the Lenten/Easter pilgrimage.