By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
There is a season for everything under heaven, says the inspired text of Ecclesiastes, and once again the time of renewal dawns for the whole church, for each community and for every believer. It is a time that touches many Catholics at our core, because we realize that it is so easy to become complacent or indifferent about the things that really matter, or better said, the relationships that really matter.
The Lord has told us what is that path for his disciples: to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as our ourselves. Our neighbor of course, is every living person, beginning at home, and extending to the margins of the world. These two commandments never go out of season, but our 40 day spiritual journey is an extra-ordinary time to grow in God’s grace as the Lord’s disciples.
The Ash Wednesday Gospel from Saint Matthew gives us the blueprint that will take us deeper into the heart of God who will then turn us back to one another in his Spirit. It is as clear as one, two, three, or prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Our experience of these three Lenten disciplines has shown us that these are the basics for transcending our self-centeredness, our selfishness and our sinfulness.
Prayer in its many forms raises our hearts and minds to God. We place aside our ego in order to better know the heart and mind of Jesus Christ. The Eucharist is the center, source and summit of our prayer, but there are many streams of prayer that nourish the spirit and feed the Lord’s body, the Church. On occasion when the apostles were unable to help a frightened man whose son was in the grip of a demon, Jesus assured them that fear is useless; what is needed is trust.” Trusting in the power of God is not possible without faithful prayer that nourishes the spirit and gives life to the Body of Christ.
Fasting is often the most underrated of the three Lenten mandates. As prayer is only possible when we set aside our precious time to focus on God, fasting also requires sacrifice because we are saying less is better. As we know Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of fasting from normal food consumption and abstaining from meat. They are the hinges of our forty-day pilgrimage and remain very important days on our spiritual calendar. But they represent a way of life for us that can be so much more. Less is better.
The discipline of fasting helps us to reduce our intake of food and drink so that we can more easily digest the Word of God. It helps us to shake off that sluggishness of spirit that accompanies excess. Fasting also applies to minimizing the level of noise that floods our everyday life. Being creative about carving out more silence and quiet so that we can pray and think about God is the path of fasting. For example, turning down the volume of noise that collides with our lives is a form of fasting from this tsunami of stimulation that can wear down the spirit. Fasting and prayer, then, go hand in hand. We fast in order to pray more ardently; we pray in order to use the world’s goods with greater integrity as the Lord’s disciples.
Almsgiving arises from the freedom of spirit that prayer and fasting are sure to inspire. We do not live by bread alone, and through faithful prayer and fasting we can more peacefully share our bread with others. What a joyous experience it is to be able to give of our time, talent, and treasure so that others may reach higher in their lives.
Almsgiving often is understood as charitable generosity to someone in need, or perhaps to a worthy cause. This is not misguided, but almsgiving can stand for so much more. It is a movement toward others in need whether they live in our own family or possibly someone we may never know personally.
I want to conclude my reflection with some thoughts from Pope Francis who speaks from the heart of the Church on Lent with a keen understanding of the human drama.
“Above all it is a ‘time of grace.’ God does not ask of us anything that he himself has not first given us. “We love because he first has loved us’. He is not aloof from us. Each one of us has a place in his heart. He knows us by name, he cares for us and he seeks us out whenever we turn away from him. He is interested in each of us; his love does not allow him to be indifferent. Indifference is a problem that we as Christians, need to confront.
“When the people of God are converted to his love, they find answers to the questions that history continually raises. One of the most urgent challenges which I would like to address in this message is precisely the globalization of indifference.
Indifference to our neighbor and to God also represents a real temptation for us Christians. Each year during Lent we need to hear once more the voice of the prophets who cry out and trouble our conscience.
“God is not indifferent to our world; he so loves it that he gave his Son for our salvation. In the Incarnation, in the earthly life, death, and resurrection of the Son of God, the gate between God and man, between heaven and earth, opens once for all. The Church is like the hand holding open this gate, thanks to her proclamation of God’s word, her celebration of the sacraments and her witness of the faith that works through love, sisters.”
“During this Lent, then, brothers and sisters, let us all ask the Lord: Fac cor nostrum secundum cor tuum – ‘Make our hearts like yours. In this way we will receive a heart that is firm and merciful, attentive and generous, a heart which is not closed, or indifferent to the world around us.”
By Bishop Joseph Kopacz