LENT...A Time of Reflection

By Fr. Roger Brennan, S.F.M.
March 1998

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Its 4:30 a.m. Cold and drizzly. A long procession of people trudge the dark muddy street to the edge of town, juggling candles, umbrellas and Rosary beads, following two men carrying a large cross. We are making the Stations of the Cross around the town, our first religious observance for this Good Friday.

I am tired and miserable and thinking, "Is this really all necessary?" knowing that the rest of the day will be filled with confessions, sermons on the seven last words of Christ from the cross, and finally the Good Friday liturgy at three o'clock.

Having grown used to the civilized comforts of Canada where even our penances are not very inconvenient, I found this simple act of piety very burdensome. However, for the people of San Fernando, on the Philippine island of Mindanao, this was not very different from their daily routine. They were perhaps out and about a little earlier than usual, but a dawn walk through muddy streets and paths to their farms was as natural as our 9:00 a.m. rush to the workplace. Most of them would spend this Good Friday in and around the church, reliving once again the events of Christ's passion and death, and through their prayers and sacrifices expressing their sorrow for sin and their gratitude for God's goodness to them.

Once again I am back in Canada.
It is hard to get a sense of the spirit
of penitence or even the need for it here.

On one hand our lives seem to be so comfortable and secure, at least materially, that it seems ridiculous to do anything to disturb them. Yet every year Lent comes around and we are reminded that this is a season of penance. We wonder what we can do to make these few weeks meaningful. For many the old penitential stand-bys seem somehow uninviting. Not that some of them would not still be difficult; but what's the point? We think, "So, I won't have desserts or a cigarette or coffee for 40 days." What does that prove except that I have will-power? It's ironic, though, that so many of the former penitential practices have been recycled as health practices intended primarily to make our bodies healthy and beautiful rather than our souls. Along with a lack of enthusiasm for 'giving things up,' few people seem inclined to intensify their spiritual exercises by such practices as more frequent attendance at Mass or more time at prayer.

In spite of what seems to me a loss of interest in traditional Lenten observances, Lent remains a unique opportunity, on a yearly basis, to reflect on our lives. It is a specific period of time; we can have a sense of solidarity with others who are observing this season of penance and we have the structure provided by the Church's liturgy to help us through this process. There are many forms that one's self-reflection can take: examination of one's personal goals, relationships, fidelity to the gospels and one's religious practices, to name a few.

This rural Philippine community relives Christ's passion and death.

This rural Philippine community relives Christ's passion and death.

Apart from the form of self-reflection we may choose, it seems to me that more and more, factors beyond our immediate control encroach on us and impose their own need for an evaluation of our lives. I am referring to the economic, social and political restructuring that is presently taking place in Canada. We are being forced to think seriously about what kind of country we have, what kind of country we may have in the future and what kind of country we want.

In terms of our personal lives, many experience anxiety, confusion and disappointment as it becomes clear that dreams and expectations of the future were ill-founded illusions. Instead of moving into a bountiful tomorrow, we now face poverty, unemployment, cutbacks, rising violence, ecological crisis and even the possible dismemberment of our country.

These are hardly pleasant things to reflect on, but they are inescapable. They are our present reality. They also raise challenging questions for us. 1 low will we as individuals and as a people react to the new situation? Will il provoke anger, hard-heartedness, discouragement, a desire to shut others out and turn a deaf ear to those in need? Or will it instead call forth compassion, generosity, a reconsideration of goals and values, and the looking for a creative way into the future? All of these considerations provide rich material for Lenten reflections, decisions and actions and the Liturgy can provide a valuable support for this process.

Ash Wednesday sets the tone with its stark realism about the nature of our earthly life. We are a sinful people in need of conversion. Our lives are short and lead inexorably to the grave, but we are called to glory.

First Sunday of Lent presents us with Christ's dilemma, which is also our own. Where shall we invest ourselves-in the search for material security and pleasure, recognition and power, or is there a more profound meaning for our lives?

Second Sunday of Lent with the gospel of the Transfiguration offers a glimpse of the glory to which we are called. However, we need the admonition, "Do not be afraid!" How tearful we are!

Can we set aside our fear and embrace the gospel with its call to conversion? The gospel reading for the Third Sunday in Lent, with the references by Jesus to the Galileans killed by Pilate and the people killed by the falling tower, reminds uk that unless we repent we will perish. This message is reinforced by the parable of the fig tree threatened with death because it produces no fruit. God is patient with us, but we are called to examine our lives, to uproot what is harmful and change what is not helpful so that our lives may be fruitful in Christian values and actions.

Fourth Sunday of Lent The story of the Prodigal Son is a rich source of reflection for all of us. Do we not all, at various times, play each of the roles? Sometimes we are the wayward son, sometimes the forgiving father, at other times the righteous older brother. Where are we now in our relationships? What grace must we seek in each case to ensure that we can respond in the most loving way to those who are part of our lives?

Fifth Sunday of Lent "Neither do I condemn you, go away and sin no more." What a relief and comfort these words of Jesus must have brought to the poor woman in the gospel after the humiliation of her public exposure by the scribes and pharisees.

Do we use people, as they did here, simply to achieve our goals, regardless of the consequences to them? Are we hypocritically self-righteous in condemning others while we excuse our own faults? Once again we are called to acknowledge the reality of our own sinfulness so that we too may hear the words, "Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more."

Holy Week, the culmination of Christ's life. It is a week of acclamation, betrayal, denial, abandonment, suffering, death and glory. So much to think about. No wonder the Filipinos celebrate this week so intensely! It could be such a week for all of us if we truly took up the challenge Lent offers us. The challenge to peer deeply into our own lives, to walk these 40 days with the words of Christ in our minds and hearts, ready to face our lives and our world, not full of fear and anxiety, but confident that in the midst of our difficulties we can find hope and meaning in the person and message of Jesus.

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