Lent: A commitment to merciful hearts

Faith Alive! 2016 No. 8 — Lent

IN A NUTSHELL

As we Catholics are well aware, Lent is a season of sacrifice and good works.

We can prepare merciful hearts by sacrificing — permanently — our need and desire to ridicule those with whom we disagree, to fear those we do not understand, to get even with those who cause us harm.

That is the kind of commitment we need to keep — during Lent and beyond.

Lent: A commitment to merciful hearts

By Mike Nelson

Catholic News Service

As we Catholics are well aware, Lent is a season of sacrifice and good works. And in some minds perhaps, a season of drudgery.

Not because of the Lenten call to sacrifice or “give up” something, although I would guess not many of us relish going without something we like for six weeks. (I have been known to reply, when asked what I am giving up for Lent, “Making commitments I can’t possibly keep.”)

The drudgery comes from believing that we do the same-old, same-old, year after year: fasting on Ash Wednesday, no meat on Fridays, Sunday readings we hear every three years, purple everywhere.

The reality, though, is that we are not doing the same thing — not, that is, if we are truly people of faith. People of faith know they are not the same people this year that they were last year or three years ago.

Let’s take, as an example, excerpts from the liturgical readings for Wednesday of the fourth week of Lent, this year on March 9. They include:

— From the Old Testament: “The Lord comforts his people and shows mercy to his afflicted” (Is 49:13).

— From the Psalms: “The Lord is gracious and merciful … good to all and compassionate toward all his works” (Ps 145:8-9).

— And from the Gospel: “Whoever hears my word and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life and will not come to condemnation, but has passed from death to life” (Jn 5:24).

These are inspiring messages of hope — as they should be, for Lent leads us to Easter, the season of new hope and new life.

But now let’s think about our lives during the fourth week of Lent in recent years — and how we received the word of God on that day.

— March 18, 2015: The Bardo National Museum in Tunisia was attacked by gunmen who killed more than 20 and wounded 50, almost all of them tourists.

— April 2, 2014: A soldier at Fort Hood in Texas shot and killed four people before killing himself.

— March 13, 2013: Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires, was elected to the papacy.

They were different events, inspiring different feelings in each of us (to say nothing of the personal changes in our lives).

Yet, we can look at these changes and still say to ourselves, “Well, that’s the way of the world, events beyond my control. I see what happens, I think about it, I move on with my life. Same-old, same-old.”

That suggests an attitude of complacency, indifference and self-sufficiency — something Pope Francis addressed rather pointedly in his Lenten message of 2015.

“Usually,” the pope said, “when we are healthy and comfortable, we forget about others — something God the Father never does. We are unconcerned with their problems, their sufferings and the injustices they endure. Our heart grows cold.

“Today, this selfish attitude of indifference has taken on global proportions, to the extent that we can speak of a globalization of indifference. It is a problem which we, as Christians, need to confront.”

How do we confront it? Performing acts of charity is certainly a worthy activity during Lent, the pope suggested. But if the good works we do during Lent do not continue throughout the year, can we say that we have been truly renewed in our faith?

Beyond good works done and sacrifices made during one period of the year, Pope Francis suggests that we are called to be people with hearts of mercy — all the time.

“A merciful heart does not mean a weak heart,” he added in that Lenten message, foretelling his declaration of the Year of Mercy. “Anyone who wishes to be merciful must have a strong and steadfast heart, closed to the tempter but open to God.”

On Palm Sunday 2016, we will again cloak ourselves in the most powerful Scripture of the year, in which Jesus, dying on the cross, proclaims his greatest act of mercy: “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34).

These are words we are called more than ever to take to heart, especially when hardship and injustice affects so many of us. At the very least, they suggest that we need to be open to the conversion of our hearts, to show the mercy to our neighbor that Christ offered all of us at his darkest hour.

We can’t predict what will happen in our lives. But we can prepare merciful hearts by sacrificing — permanently — our need and desire to ridicule those with whom we disagree, to fear those we do not understand, to get even with those who cause us harm.

That is the kind of commitment we need to keep — during Lent and beyond.

(Nelson is former editor of The Tidings, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.)

Lenten lessons can help us affirm its promise

By Raymond Langford

Catholic News Service

When my brother and I were children, one of the most exciting events of the year was the annual visit of the Easter Bunny, that magical personage who brought candy and toys when we were toddlers, and, in later years, candy, cash and books.

He always seemed to know just what we wanted, but we had never met him. Not once. And it wasn’t for lack of trying. For many years we plotted to lie in wait behind the living room sofa so we could meet him in person. Mom’s response was always the same: “You have to go to bed and go to sleep, or the Easter Bunny won’t come.”

But what child wants to go to sleep?

I certainly wasn’t a big fan (at least, not then), nor was I crazy about turning the lights out — a necessary prerequisite — since I was hypervigilant as to the possibility of things going bump in the night.

Eventually, however, I would concede, and Mom’s counsel was borne out: The Easter Bunny showed up, and our faith was rewarded.

Lent, I think, is a little like that. It’s not a bright or festive season. The warmth and joy of Christmas has passed and the promise of Easter is just beyond the horizon.

This somber period is, however, a necessary component of our spiritual journey. Often described as a season of reflection or penitence, it’s awkward and uncomfortable. The self-examination we engage in may call us to make changes or take on challenges we’d prefer to avoid.

Or maybe we find no immediate answers to our nagging doubts and questions.

Either way, it’s likely to be messy. Biblical rituals for penitence included, for example, sackcloth and ashes — not exactly an image you’d care to share on Facebook. Still, many of us carry on a vestige of that tradition every year, marking Lent by giving up something we enjoy as a physical reminder: sodas, chocolate, chardonnay or a weekly trip to the movies.

But as Pope Francis wrote during Lent 2014, the point of a sacrifice, however small, isn’t the sacrifice itself. The point is what the sacrifice accomplishes.

“By making himself poor, Jesus did not seek poverty for its own sake but, as St. Paul says, ‘that by his poverty you might become rich,'” Pope Francis wrote in his Lenten message that year.

He later added: “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.”

So instead of giving up candy for 40 days, we might try adding an activity that’s more meaningful: remembering the people on our local parish prayer list in daily devotionals, helping prepare food for brown-bag lunches for the homeless or visiting shut-ins we seldom see.

Our sacrifice, in that scenario, is our time and energy. If Lent is a time to consider the elements of our lives that leave us feeling separated from God and from our neighbors, such efforts symbolize an attempt to begin changing those things for the better.

The cycle isn’t unique to Christianity. It plays out all around us. We see it in the lives of people such as Steve Jobs, who was forced out of the company he helped found, then returned a decade later to bring it back from the brink of irrelevancy, making Apple one of the best-known brands on the planet.

Similarly, the lesson of Lent becomes an association with being planted, like a seed, and putting down roots amid suffering, for a new life of Easter.

It’s our fallow period, when like the earth on which we live, we lay the foundations and gather the energy necessary for the life-giving work ahead. It’s the dark night, without which there is no morning.

(Langford is a freelance writer. He lives in New York City.)

Lent: Focusing on God’s love for us

By Daniel S. Mulhall

Catholic News Service

Lent is a penitential season. It is a time for reflecting on our lives and seeking to understand how we can grow closer to God. During this Year of Mercy, perhaps our focus should be on understanding what God has done and will do for us, and then consider what changes we must make in our lives so that we can do for others what God has done for us.

As Jesus says in the Gospel, “If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (Jn 13:14-15).

Following his baptism, Jesus went into the desert to pray. Mark 1:12 says that “the Spirit drove him out into the desert.” Following this time of 40 days of fasting and prayer, Jesus emerged from the desert with a passionate message of God’s love and mercy.

He went throughout Galilee “proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people” (Mt 4:23).

In his teaching about the good news of the kingdom, Jesus used parables to explain God’s great love for us. The message in the parable in Luke 15:11-32 is of a father who welcomes his wayward son back with open arms without waiting for the son to apologize for anything. He offers a message of God’s great mercy. Many of Jesus’ parables make a similar point.

The image of God as merciful is not unique to Jesus. It is found frequently in the Old Testament, in many examples in the Psalms.

The prophet Isaiah proclaimed God’s never-ending love for us in one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible:

“Sing out, heavens, and rejoice, earth, break forth into song, you mountains, For the Lord comforts his people and shows mercy to his afflicted. But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me.’ Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you” (Is 49:13-15).

So, for Lent this year perhaps our focus should be on practicing that teaching of Jesus found in Luke 6:27-36:

“But to you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic.

“Give to everyone who asks of you, and from the one who takes what is yours do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. …

“But rather, love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back; then your reward will be great and you will be children of the most high, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as [also] your Father is merciful.”

(Mulhall is a catechist. He lives in Laurel, Maryland.)

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Like any journey, a good Lenten journey involves preparation.

The website Ignatian Spirituality by Loyola Press advises preparing for Lent by imaging the day and designating a time for prayer during that day.

It says that the central question before we embark during Lent is this: “What is the grace we desire to deepen within us during Lent?”

— Is it “to deepen our understanding of Jesus’ passion”?

— Is it “to walk with Jesus through his passion and resurrection”?

— Is it “to work on overcoming a temptation that keeps us from fully entering into life Christ”?

— Or is it “to foster a new spiritual practice to ignite or inflame our relationship with Jesus”?

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