The penitential season of Lent begins today. As Catholics, we are called to fast, to pray and to give alms – all with the intention of repenting for our sins and turning back to the Lord who loves us. Lent will last for forty days and will culminate with the beginning of the Holy Triduum and the events of Calvary, before looking forward to the joy of Easter.
In reality, it feels in some ways as though we have been in a deeply penitential season continuously since our Lent of last year. We associate Lent with ‘giving something up’ – and how much we have given up over this past year! How much we continue to give up, for the good of others. Perhaps we needed to do so. Perhaps this past year has had many hard lessons to teach us about detachment and refocussing; re-eastablishing our personal and communal priorities; what really matters – and what does not.
At the personal level, I found the absence of religious services throughout Lent and at Easter last year exceptionally difficult – far more so than the similar absence at Christmas. I would have given anything to have been able to make the Stations of the Cross with my parish community, to gather for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday and then to venerate the Cross and receive Holy Communion on Good Friday. Perhaps the absence of these things gave me some very small taste of the sufferings of the Lord that Thursday night in Gethsemane, as it would have done for so very many others. It may be this was a lesson I needed to learn, and it is one I continue to ponder on.
As last year wore on, I never for a moment – well, initially at least – considered that the following year (this year), we would find ourselves in a broadly similar position, at least as things stand at this moment. Unless there are considerable changes in the present restrictions to which we are subject, it is likely that the Triduum this year will, like the last one, be celebrated quietly at home. This was brought home to me very forcefully yesterday when I went to the parish presbytery to collect blessed ashes in preparation for Ash Wednesday; in all my years, I had never considered there might be a day when Catholics would need to mix and administer their own ashes on Ash Wednesday. I was also forcefully aware of the effects all this must be having on our Priests – their lives, too, have been irrevocably changed by all that is happening.
And this seems to have been the theme of this past year – change. Change to me and to you as individuals; changes to our families, with whom we are spending long periods of time alone, with all this might bring; and to our extended families, whom we have likely not seen in some time; changes to the way we work and to the way we go about our daily lives, even the way we shop for food; and changes to the way we now think about life, the world and our place within it, and what is important to all of us.
Yes, so very much has changed and remains changed.
And yet, we are called to make further change in this time of Lent, which begins today. We are called to look carefully at what transpires within ourselves and in our relationship with the Lord and, based on what we perceive, to determine where that change is most needed. Lent is the moment of change; that change needs to bring about renewal and spiritual reinvigoration – and these two should greatly influence our lives in the world and the mark we make upon it.
I pray that in this Lent, the Lord might grant me the wisdom to see and perceive where change is needed, the courage to make that change, and the humility to bear with submission whatever He sends me in the doing of this.