My Mom was a great cook and baker. One needs only to look at her sons to see the evidence! Growing up, I would frequently sit with her in the kitchen as she worked her magic. I remember so well a little file box in the kitchen cabinet, decorated with Pennsylvania Dutch symbols. In it she kept clippings from magazines or notes written out in pencil on index cards or scraps of paper.
These were her treasured “recipes” collected over the years. Most of them she had committed to memory although, as she grew older, she would consult her recipes from time to time to make sure she “got it right” for her family, especially as the holidays approached. That was so important to her. In season and out of season, she never lost her touch in the kitchen, God be good to her.
Speaking of seasons, it’s hard to believe that Lent is already upon us once more. Didn’t we just take down the Christmas tree and decorations? Time marches on. As we begin the Holy Season of Lent, our thoughts turn once again to this penitential time of grace the Church gives us every year for the 40 days before Easter! This is an important period in our Catholic life deserving some serious reflection and attention on our part. We need to “get it right,” and the Church offers us some “recipes” to help us on our Lenten journey.
In his annual Lenten Message, Pope Francis points out the three main “ingredients” of Lent: prayer, almsgiving and fasting. He writes:
By devoting more time to prayer, we enable our hearts to root out our secret lies and forms of self-deception, and then to find the consolation God offers. He is our Father and he wants us to live life well. …
Almsgiving sets us free from greed and helps us to regard our neighbor as a brother or sister. What I possess is never mine alone. How I would like almsgiving to become a genuine style of life for each of us! How I would like us, as Christians, to follow the example of the Apostles and see in the sharing of our possessions a tangible witness of the communion that is ours in the Church! …
Fasting weakens our tendency to violence; it disarms us and becomes an important opportunity for growth. On the one hand, it allows us to experience what the destitute and the starving have to endure. On the other hand, it expresses our own spiritual hunger and thirst for life in God. Fasting wakes us up. It makes us more attentive to God and our neighbor. It revives our desire to obey God, who alone is capable of satisfying our hunger (Pope Francis, “Message for Lent 2018”).
To “get it right,” our “recipes” for Lent should include all three of these ingredients. They are and have long been the Church’s Lenten tradition. That doesn’t mean that we can’t be creative and use our imaginations to add some flavor. Here are some suggestions:
1. (Prayer) Pray more intensely. Deliberately set aside time throughout the 40 days of Lent when you will pray and not let anything else interfere. Do not miss a single Sunday Mass. Go to confession: rid yourself of all your sins, the baggage you drag through life, and make every effort to convert your heart and change your ways. Who cares how long it’s been since you last went? You’re confessing for you, not the priest or anyone else. You need God’s mercy, and this is the way Catholics ask for it. Be conscious of the presence of God all around you – in every situation; in every person. That’s a way of praying!
2. (Almsgiving) Give something. How much is that exotic coffee you “must” have every day or that donut? Drop the cash once in a while into a container that you can give to charity. There are so many needs out there. Give to the poor. Give the gift of time to your elderly parents or the sick or neighbors or kids for that matter. Say something positive or nice to someone who needs to hear it. Stop judging all the time. Random acts of kindness! Use your imagination and give something, do something to/for others and forget about yourself for a change.
3. (Fasting) Give something up and not simply to go on a diet or stop smoking. To do those things with a spiritual motivation is a different thing than losing weight. Give something up to fill the emptiness that sacrifice creates with the Lord Jesus. Let him satisfy the hunger you create by what you give up. How much time do you spend on your cell phones, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter? Cut it back … for Christ. Use the time to talk to people in person. Cut back on the liquor or foods you indulge in so much, too much. Become thirsty and hungry for the Lord Jesus. Do a better job, a more conscientious job at work or spend more time at home with family. Get everybody to eat together once a week. Give up some time for a worthy cause or effort. Again, use your imagination and come up with something real, something to sacrifice.
I don’t want to push my “recipe metaphor” too far here, but I think it makes a good point. As Bishop, I want to encourage all Catholics in the Diocese of Trenton to make this Holy Season of Lent different from the rest of the year, to “get it right.” It takes thought, effort, focus and endurance. Don’t give up if you slip. Renew your determination.
The purpose in all this – with God’s grace – is to create a change of heart that allows the Lord Jesus to fill up whatever is lacking in our spiritual life. Prayer, almsgiving, fasting are the means of carrying the Cross with the Lord Jesus, however you apply them, for 40 days. Eternal Life with the Risen Lord at Easter and beyond is the goal. That’s a good recipe for the Christian life in anybody’s book. A blessed, joyful, grace-filled Lent to all!