What is Lent? – John Foley, SJ

Mark 1:12-15, First Sunday of Lent

What is Lent? Ash Wednesday was a few days ago, starting the Lenten countdown toward Holy Week and Easter, but maybe some of us are not completely clear as to why these weeks of preparation are there in the first place.

One opinion is that Lent is a time to deprive yourself. You give up candy or smoking or desserts or heavy meals or … choose your favorite. These are good and definitely part of Lenten practice (even if they are like New Year’s resolutions, since we usually break those).

Lenten deprivation.

It gave birth to Mardi Gras, meaning Fat Tuesday, literally. In contrast to tough Lent, eat all the fat you can, parade around in costume, go wild. The public usually does not recall that Mardi Gras has something to do with the quaint old practice of Lent. But that sharpens the question: what have they or we forgotten about Lent and its practice of penance?

What if we described Lent as a “Retreat”?

A Retreat, in Catholic and other religions, is a space of days taken to pray and to be with God. Often one goes to a retreat house to have one. In St. Louis, for instance, there is a beautiful place called “White House”—the president has never been there, it is a different one—which has a stunning view of the Mississippi River. For many decades Jesuits have preached retreats there every weekend and sometimes during the week. Sizeable groups of men or of women stay for two or three days to meditate, listen to talks, and to refresh their spiritual lives.

No, no, I do not mean that you should disappear for the five weeks of Lent to the nearest retreat house. But what about letting each Lenten day partake of certain retreat practices? For instance, what about setting aside a little time daily to let your insides settle down for a while, to create space within you to welcome God. Maybe set up a special place in your house or someplace else just to pray. How about a picture or crucifix or maybe just a candle? Or just 10 minutes of silence?

And why not take some time to read in advance the Gospel from the upcoming Sunday Mass? Sit down, read it slowly, and let the scene described take place within the your mind and heart. This week you could ask Jesus how it felt to have the Spirit drive him into the desert, as described in the Gospel.

The point? Let the Lord’s loving deeds be your motivation for “giving up” anything during Lent. You might begin to see that you are making a gift of gratitude to God, rather than just “giving up” something you like. How does this prepare us for Holy Week and for Easter? By doing exactly what Jesus does when he makes himself a gift of suffering and death. He is returning a gift of love to the Father. Lent prepares us to witness this reality of our savior.

It is the same gift we receive at every Mass when we go to Communion.

Maybe we could let ourselves be driven into the desert ourselves, and let the Holy Spirit guide us. That is the meaning of Lent.

*image from the Internet

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