Lent is usually presented as a time for penance and fasting. For example, the Canadian liturgical calendar says that Lent has two major purposes: “It recalls or prepares for baptism, and emphasizes a spirit of penance.”
For many Christians, this is a negative obligation, such as giving up something or depriving oneself of something they enjoy. However, it must be kept in mind that the ultimate objective is always positive.
This has been emphasized in Christian tradition. In his Rule, St. Benedict wrote a special chapter on the Observance of Lent. He mentions various penances for the monks, including prayer, reading, and abstinence from food and drink. Then he adds the ultimate reason for these penances: “to look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.”
In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah warned against a false notion of doing penance. On the Friday after Ash Wednesday, his words are: “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting will not make your voice heard on high. . . . to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them. . . . Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.”
Pope Francis is on the same wavelength. In his address to the pastors of Rome at St. John Lateran Basilica, he said that, while the world is full sinful behaviour, priests must learn to scrutinize the “signs of the times” for trends and attitudes that are good and healthy and holy.
While there is “moral conduct that we aren’t used to seeing,” he explained, there also is “a greater awareness of human rights, a push for tolerance and equality and appreciation for the values of peace and solidarity.”
Pope Francis took the same tone during his Ash Wednesday homily at the Dominican-run Basilica of Santa Sabina on Rome’s Aventine Hill, next to the Benedictine Abbey of St. Anselm.
Lent is a time for Christians to get their hearts in sync with the heart of Jesus, he said: “Let the Lord heal the wounds of sin and fulfil the prophecy made to our fathers: ‘A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.’
On a practical level, he said Lent is a time “to allow our hearts to beat once more in tune with the vibrant heart of Jesus.” Hit the reset button, he advised, and take a pause from “bitter feelings, which never get us anywhere” and from a frantic pace of life that leaves too little time for family, friends, children, grandparents, and God.
An anonymous monk once wrote: “In this world, what is important is not so much where we stand that counts, but in what direction we are moving.”
Much like training for the Olympics, we need to have a purpose and set our goals, make it a positive improvement for ourselves and society, and then our “training” doesn’t feel so difficult.