The penitential practices of Lent prepare us to face the trials and demands of life with joy.
I’m always amazed at how quickly we transition from the joy of the Christmas season to the penitential season of Lent, which begins this year on Feb. 22. But Lent reminds us that there is no real and lasting joy apart from the cross of Christ. An essential part of our ongoing conversion, Lent is meant to bring us ever closer to the joy that is Christ.
In one of those nice coincidences of life, the St. Louis Cardinals will begin spring training this year when Lent begins and will officially open this year’s baseball season with their first game on the last day of Lent. The Easter Triduum begins the following day and culminates with the Easter Vigil of Holy Saturday night and the triumph of Easter Sunday on April 8.
Permit me to dwell a moment longer on my love of baseball in speaking of the importance of Lent. Spring training, which actually occurs during the winter, is the time when players take up anew the discipline and sacrifices needed to carry them through the entire baseball season. They hope that the skills they hone and the endurance they gain will take them into the playoffs and to the World Series—as was the case for the St. Louis Cardinals last year.
But the baseball season is long, and the hardships of the game intensify as the season progresses. During the peak of last year’s seemingly endless heat wave, I reflected on summer’s “dog days”—which, like Lent, last for 40 days. I wrote then that
Real baseball fans know the importance of the “dog days” of summer . . . [when] teams either renew their passion for the game or succumb to the fatigue of a long season intensified by the heat and humidity. But the teams that advance into the playoffs (like my St. Louis Cardinals always do) embrace the struggle and use it to strengthen and form themselves into a championship team. That’s also true in the spiritual life (Aug. 7, 2011, ETC).
I could not have been happier to see those words fulfilled in my beloved St. Louis Cardinals, who took the discipline of their 2011 spring training all the way to an incredible game six and seven win in the World Series. But their victory began with spring training. Likewise, our training in the victory of Christ crucified begins anew each year with Lent, preparing us spiritually for the hard days that lie before us when life and temptations can wear us down.
Our spring training as Catholics traditionally focuses on a triad of penitential practices: fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. These practices express our commitment to our ongoing conversion in the life bestowed upon us in Christ through baptism. Like a trilogy that’s incomplete if one of its three stories is ignored, these penitential practices must be embraced together.
Of the three, fasting is perhaps the most underappreciated today, but it was the first discipline required in the garden of Eden, when God commanded Adam to abstain—“you shall not eat”—from just one fruit (Genesis 2:16-17). We thirst and hunger for more than the material things of this world, which can never fully satisfy. Fasting directs us to what truly nourishes and comforts us—and that only God can give (cf. Matthew 4:4). Fasting disposes us to make the sacrifices we must make if we are to be the face of Jesus to others in need.
Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are traditionally days of fast and abstinence, and we should remember that abstinence from meat on Fridays is observed not only during Lent but also throughout the year (unless substituted with another appropriate sacrifice). We should not think of fasting as giving up something but rather as giving something. That leads us to almsgiving.
Almsgiving reminds us that we are stewards, not masters, of God’s many blessings. We do not live for ourselves but for God and our neighbor. In giving of ourselves and our resources, we increase our capacity for giving as Christ does—without measure.
In addition to continuing your generous financial gifts to your parish church, please participate in Catholic Relief Services’ Operation Rice Bowl. It’s a wonderful way to support the essential work CRS does in helping the poor around the world. Twenty-five percent of what is collected in our diocese will go to Catholic Charities of East Tennessee Inc. to assist the agency with its vital works of mercy here at home.
On Ash Wednesday a national collection will be taken up to aid the Church in Central and Eastern Europe, a region devastated from decades of harsh communist rule. And on Easter weekend we will take up a special collection for the education of our 17 seminarians—the future of the priesthood in our diocese. But as I ask for your generosity in almsgiving, I above all ask for your generosity in prayer.
The Stations of the Cross is one of the Church’s most beloved devotions. The Stations adorn the walls of our churches, but they are not for decoration. Instead, they invite us to meditate on the mystery of Christ’s sufferings. It is in the cross of Christ that we find our own cross and the joy with which to bear it.
Fasting is the soul of prayer, as so many saints have observed. And what fasting is for the soul, almsgiving is for the body of Christ. Without prayer, our almsgiving is limited to the little we can give instead of what God can give through us. That harvest produces yields of “thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold” (Mark 4:8). I pray your Lent brings you closer to Christ, our true joy.