No serious study of English Literature can be complete without consideration of the works of William Shakespeare. One of his classic comedies, “Much Ado about Nothing,” presents a tale of love and deception in a humorous way with characters caught up in its unfolding drama.
Human love always makes an interesting story, and human deception all too often adds some unfortunate spice to the mix. Frequently enough, when reflecting upon human experience, especially in the area of relationships, we can easily see how human beings regularly make more out of something than is actually warranted, or than a particular situation or circumstances deserves. Hence, Shakespeare’s title, “Much Ado about Nothing.”
I am not doing justice here to his timeless comedic insight, so I’ll just “steal” his theme and twist it a bit to read “Much Ado about Something,” and apply it to the Season of Lent. In these 40 days we, as Catholics, are given the chance each year to make “much ado” about it.
This time around, Lent occurs within Pope Francis’ “Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy.” The Church gives us the season and the Holy Father gives us an “extraordinary” theme to consider in the hope that it will become “ordinary” in our lives as Catholics, not simply for Lent but throughout the whole year, indeed, throughout our lives.
Lent is traditionally a time for prayer and fasting. This year, I am especially drawn to these words from my reading: “Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others, you open God’s ear to yourself.”
These words may sound like the recent thought of Pope Francis but they were written long before his papacy. They are the words of St. Peter Chrysologus, one of the Church Fathers who lived in the late fourth and early fifth centuries (Sermo 43: PL 52, 320, 322), and are found in the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of Hours for Tuesday of the third week of Lent. Pope Benedict XVI quoted them in his Lenten Message 2009.
That “mercy is the lifeblood of fasting” could very well capture Pope Francis’ understanding of what Lent is all about in this Holy Year.
Blessed Teresa of Calcutta once remarked, “As Lent is the time for greater love, listen to Jesus’ thirst...’Repent and believe’ Jesus tells us. What are we to repent? Our indifference, our hardness of heart. What are we to believe? Jesus thirsts even now, in your heart and in the poor. He knows your weakness. He wants only your love, wants only the chance to love you.” Profound words, indeed! And our love for God and God’s love for us is not a passive thing. It leads somewhere and to something concrete in our relationships with one another. Lent is not simply a time for our introspection and meditation, for disconnected fasting and sacrifice. It is a season of purpose, set apart for the conversion of our hearts and lives.
Over the years, Catholics have asked me “Father, what should I do for Lent?” This year, perhaps, we should take as our goal to “show mercy.”
I recall reading somewhere these words in one of the Lenten Messages of Pope Benedict XVI: “Lent stimulates us to let the Word of God penetrate our life and in this way to know the fundamental truth: who we are, where we come from, where we must go, what path we must take in life.” Lent is the right path and the right place to begin this Holy Year of Mercy. And, so, might I suggest these Lenten practices:
Read the Scriptures
Listen to God’s Word as it is proclaimed at Mass; reflect upon the claims that God’s Word has upon you to whom it is addressed. Turn to the Lord Jesus and hear what he has to say to you. Don’t pass up the opportunity. As Pope Francis has said: “Listen to the Word of God, meditate on it together, pray with it, let the Lord fill your lives with mercy … I would like so much for all Christians to be able to comprehend ‘the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ’ through the diligent reading of the Word of God, for the sacred text is the nourishment of the soul and the pure and perennial source of the spiritual life of all of us.” It’s not difficult. It’s right in front of you.
Pray and give yourself the time to do so
Prayer is something you can do anywhere, everywhere. Prayer is something you can do anytime, all the time. Just stop for a moment and remember that God is present. God wants to hear from you and about you. And God wants to speak if you would only give him the chance. Pray in the morning as you start your day. Pray at night as your day ends. Pray during your day, even if it’s only to tell God you love him and you need him. Pray alone. Pray with others, especially at Mass. Use your own words; use words that are familiar. Pray for yourself, pray for others especially for those you love and who love you. Pray for those who do not. Pray with your family. Don’t be embarrassed. Just do it. In his Lenten Message 2015, Pope Francis wrote: “Let us all ask the Lord: make our hearts like yours (Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus). In this way we will receive a heart which is firm and merciful, attentive and generous, a heart which is not closed.” It’s not difficult. It’s right in front of you.
Go to Confession
Whether it’s been a long time or last month, the Sacrament of Penance brings healing, grace and peace of mind and heart. What are you waiting for? Why put it off any longer? You know yourself and your weaknesses and sins. Are you trying to hide from yourself? You can’t. God knows your weaknesses and sins. Are you trying to hide from him? You can’t. The Scriptures remind us: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you (Jeremiah 1: 5).” Are you afraid of the priest? Forget it because he is a sinner too and has to go to another priest for Confession himself. Pope Francis once remarked: “Someone can say, ‘I confess my sins only to God.’ Yes, you can say to God, ‘forgive me,’ and say your sins. But our sins are also against our brothers, against the Church. This is why it is necessary to ask forgiveness of the Church and of our brothers, in the person of the priest.” “The Sacrament of Reconciliation is a Sacrament of healing,” he pointed out. “When I go to Confession, it’s for healing: healing the soul, healing the heart because of something that I did to make it unwell (General Audience, February 19, 2014).” How often Pope Francis himself says “I am a sinner!” And he’s the Pope! Ask for God’s mercy. It’s not difficult. It’s right in front of you.
Give something up that might pinch a little. Fast when the Church asks you to and don’t make excuses. Do it so that the hunger or emptiness you feel might remind you that you need God more in your life than anything else. Thomas a Kempis wrote in his “Imitation of Christ”: “Nothing, how little so ever it be, if it is suffered for God’s sake, can pass without merit in the sight of God.” In his Lenten Message 2014, Pope Francis wrote: “Lent is a fitting time for self-denial; we would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others by our own poverty. Let us not forget that real poverty hurts: no self-denial is real without this dimension of penance. I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt.” It’s not difficult. It’s right in front of you.
And not because others have earned it. Show mercy when they don’t deserve it. Forgive. Be slow to judge. Give people a break. Show a little compassion. That’s what the Lord Jesus does and what we ask of him, sinners that we all are. Do something nice, something good for someone. In his Lenten Message 2014, Pope Francis wrote: “The Lord asks us to be joyous heralds of this message of mercy and hope! It is thrilling to experience the joy of spreading this good news, sharing the treasure entrusted to us, consoling broken hearts and offering hope to our brothers and sisters experiencing darkness.” It’s not difficult. It’s right in front of you.
This year, the Season of Lent and the Year of Mercy overlap, and well they should because both lead us to God, to his grace and to his love. Scripture. Prayer. Confession. Sacrifice. Mercy. Let’s walk the path this Lent in the Diocese of Trenton, in our parishes, in our homes and communities. “The Name of God Is Mercy.”
This Lent, let us call on his name so that this special Year of Mercy may be a time of growth in true holiness. It’s not difficult. It’s not “much ado about nothing.” No, it is “much ado about something,” which, in the end, is everything! In his Message for Lent 2016, Pope Francis asks that “the Season of Lent in this Jubilee Year be lived more intensely as a privileged moment to celebrate and experience God’s mercy.” May your observance of the Season of Lent this year bear great fruit!