“These forty days of Lent, O Lord, with you we fast and pray.”
This line from a popular hymn we sing during the season of Lent contains a very important truth. During the days and weeks of penance that lie ahead, it is with YOU, Lord, with YOU we fast and pray. The model Jesus gave us for “these forty days” was his own experience of the desert and the temptations that followed him there. The beginning of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke tell the familiar story: that the Spirit led Jesus into the desert where he encountered Satan face to face. And yet, Jesus, there in the desert – alone, fasting and in intense prayer – beat back the devil and triumphed over temptation, as strong and as unrelenting as it was throughout those forty days.
My sisters and brothers, we enter the desert of Lent like Jesus, led by the Holy Spirit, to face our devils, our temptations head on. But we are not alone. “With YOU we fast and pray” is our song. The Lord Jesus Christ is with us, by our side, in our minds and hearts, within our very souls. And so, too, is the Church, the entire community of faith observing Lent as Christ’s body in time. “With YOU, too, we fast and pray.” The devil is no less powerful. Temptation is no less strong. Sin is no less real. But Jesus Christ and his Church stand with us who were “baptized into his death” and washed in his very own blood, as we head out into the desert of Lent once more.
When we sense the presence of evil during Lent, say with Christ and His Church, “get behind me Satan (Matthew 16:23).” When we feel the pull of temptation in these forty days, say with Christ and His Church, “it is when I am weak, then that I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:10).” When we encounter our own sinfulness and that of others during this season of penance, say with Christ and His Church, “Father, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us (Luke 11:14).”
We are not alone in the desert or in life for that matter. “With YOU we fast and pray.” With Jesus Christ. With His Church. So don’t let the season of Lent pass by as just another forty days without paying attention to the One who leads us into the desert, the One who is with us in the desert, the One who calls us “out of darkness into his own marvelous light” in the desert of Lent.
It is not all that complicated or all that difficult. These forty days of Lent are a time set aside by the Church, in the Church, with the Church to look deeply into our souls and to invite Jesus Christ in: if we have been away, to invite him back; if we have been lukewarm, to light the fire again; if we have been active, to become even stronger in living our baptismal commitment. Lent is a time to move, to act, to become more and to become better. As Bishop of the Diocese, let me make three suggestions for these forty days of Lent how to do that.
Go to confession. Lent is called a “penitential” season, a time to express sorrow for past sins and failures. The Sacrament of Penance is precisely that, a “sacrament” or outward sign instituted by Christ to give grave, in this case the grace of God’s merciful forgiveness. Who doesn’t need that, who doesn’t want that in his/her life? Why hold on to past sins like they are a treasure? Let them go; get rid of them no matter how small or large, no matter how petty or profound, no matter how often we fail or how embarrassed they make us feel; they do us no good. Christ already knows them anyway and wants to forgive them. Whether it’s been two months, two years or twenty: it is Christ we are approaching in confession through the sign of the priest. Remember, we priests are sinners too so don’t be afraid. All it takes is a deep breath and the simple, humble courage to say, “Bless me Father for I have sinned.” You’ll feel better but, more importantly, you’ll be better. With YOU we fast and pray!
Give something up. The Church provides days of fast and abstinence. Take it one step further. Make another sacrifice that is uniquely yours. What could we give up that would create a hunger, a thirst, a craving for Christ so that when we feel that little ache or gnawing for it, we remember Christ present suffering with us and the Church as well, devoting a whole season to repentence? Are we too good for that? Too sophisticated? Too advanced to follow centuries of tradition? With YOU we fast and pray!
Give something. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving have always been the “triple-crown” of Lent. What begins on our knees through prayer and travels to our senses through fasting transforms itself into a recognition of the needs that we see all around us. Do something for somebody else. Our concern and charity are the “extra-mile” Christians are called to travel. What better time than Lent to make the trip from “ashes to Easter?” What better way than making it all real and concrete, by making a difference in someone else’s life? It doesn’t take that much. With YOU we fast and pray.
Yes. Lent is here, “deja-vu all over again!” Let’s take that familiar hymn and mean what we sing: with YOU Lord and with your Church, we fast and pray!
Most Reverend David M. O’Connell, C.M.
Bishop of Trenton