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Lent: From Mere Endurance to Transformation
Let me begin with a question. Was Lent different for you last year because of the pandemic? I started Lent 2020 in earnest, with my personal plan for prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Then suddenly, COVID-19 plummeted into and onto our lives. I wish I could report that I remained steadfast with all my Lenten promises. Instead, as the normal routine of my life was disrupted by the pandemic, my adherence to my Lenten practices was also diminished. I am not proud to say this, but I felt like a spiritual couch potato.
When I was a child, I mostly viewed Lent as a time of grim endurance. Usually I would give up something, such as candy, and then count the days until I could return to indulging myself with fistfuls of my favorite sweets, chocolate and licorice.
In high school, I vividly remember an Ash Wednesday homily in which the priest encouraged us to view Lent as an opportunity for transformation rather than mere endurance. This one homily helped to change and shape my spiritual life. He exhorted us to use the Lenten time wisely and as a gift so that, after the 40 days, we would not immediately return to our old habits, but instead would seek conversion and begin life anew.
In other words, he had invited us to reorder our lives so God was clearly in the center.
After his homily, I was determined to not just give up something and then immediately return to my old ways. Instead, I looked for ways that my prayer, fasting and almsgiving might lead to a more permanent change in my behaviors or attitudes so they would become more Christ-like.
Since then, some years have been more fruitful than others. As an adult, I have experienced Lents in which I felt the Lord had truly accompanied me in my penitential journey, concluding with a strong desire to love Jesus even more and to put my faith into action. However, I also admit there have been dry years in which my Lenten promises “fizzled-out,” and I ended up feeling less than renewed.
The number 40 is important in the Bible. It usually signifies being transformed or starting anew. Scripturally, sometimes those 40 days or years were used well and sometimes they were squandered.
After they escaped slavery from the Egyptians through God’s grace and protection, God said of the People of Abraham, “So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8).
And yet, the Israelites wandered for 40 years in the desert before they reached the promised land. Instead of keeping their eyes focused on God and His promise, they became distracted with their own disobedience and disbelief. In other words, they walked by sight and not by faith.
Conversely, Jesus spent His 40 days in the desert quite differently. He articulated his resistance to the devil’s temptations by quoting the Sacred Scripture, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Jesus revealed that His obedience and belief were focused exclusively on God. When He returned from that experience, He was ready to follow the will of His Father and boldly begin His ministry. As always, Jesus shows us the way and gives us the model of how we should approach the 40 days of Lent.
The pandemic and its restrictions may be viewed as something we have too long suffered and must still endure. But Lent is different. The Church gives us this beautiful season – not as a time to put our hands in the air in surrender to our temptations – but as a time of transformation.
Unlike last year, when my Lenten resolve “fizzled-out,” I am eagerly engaging this season of Lent as a time of spiritual renewal through prayer, fasting and almsgiving. I encourage you also to use this time as a gift and look for ways of keeping God in the center of your life. Together, let us unite with Christ and emerge from these 40 days to celebrate the joy of Easter with transformed hearts and to follow Him enthusiastically in both word and action throughout the years ahead.