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On preparing for Lent

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, February 16, 2006

I don’t mean to tear you away from any residual bliss you may still be enjoying from Valentine’s Day, but it’s time to look ahead. No, not to St. Patrick’s Day or Easter, though the Hallmark distributors are working feverishly even as you read this to clean out the pink heart cards and replace them with green shamrock cards and pastel bunny and egg cards.

Lent’s coming. Ash Wednesday falls on March 1 this year, and before you start quietly groaning, remember that it could be worse: last year, Lent started before Valentine’s Day, surely forcing many to choose between a) saving their Valentine chocolate for more than a month until it collided with their Easter chocolate and brought about one giant sugar frenzy, or b) creating one of those “I’m sure God will understand this” rationalizations justifying why it was really, really okay, just for today, to eat the very item only so recently placed on the “given up for Lent” list.

All kidding – and all chocolate – aside, Lent provides us with an absolutely wonderful opportunity to prepare. The point is not to test our resolve as we walk past the dessert section in the dining hall, or to see if we can make it through the six weekends of Lent without drinking, though sacrifice may well play a significant role in our Lenten preparations. What we are meant to do with Lent, with our Lenten opportunity, is to prepare our hearts, our lives and indeed our world, for the transforming power of Jesus’ resurrection at Easter. For as Christians we believe that the death and resurrection of Jesus continues to make all the difference in our world and that our participation in that death and resurrection demands a lifetime of living and growing in Christ. What we do with Lent, then, shouldn’t be some impossible system of deprivation that we can barely carry out for forty days, much less the rest of our lives, but a balanced, challenging combination of sacrifice and efforts to grow in faith that will bear fruit in our lives long after the Easter season ends. Put another way, each Lent should move us forward in some way so that when the next Lent rolls around we have to look for new ways to sacrifice and grow because we’ve made progress since the year before.

As you begin to think about how this year’s season of Lent can transform your heart, you might consider as a companion the Letter of James, way back toward the end of the New Testament. The Church is reading through James during each weekday liturgy from now until next Saturday, February 25. James is such a short little book (five pages in my Bible) that you could easily read it in one sitting, but it’s worth taking smaller bites and chewing each one thoroughly, as your mom would say. James is loaded with specific, practical demands upon the Christians to whom he wrote that they live out their faith in actions of generous love. He had little patience for people who called themselves Christians but whose lives in no way reflected this claim. Out of that impatience comes two of James’ best-known quotations: “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves” (1:22), and “Demonstrate your faith to me without works and I will demonstrate my faith to you with my works … for faith without works is dead” (2:18,26).

James knew, as did St. Paul, that true faith will lead us unmistakably to loving our neighbor as ourselves. James could be quite compelling reading for anyone trying to decide how you might spend Lent well this year. He calls us to deepen our faith, which during Lent naturally leads our thoughts to prayer and sacrifice; and he calls us then to live out that faith through service to others (our “works”), particularly those who find themselves most in need. We have a great and generous gift from God before us! Don’t miss this chance to receive the gift and give it back to God in love.

Kate Barrett is director of Resources & Special Projects for Campus Ministry. She can be reached at Barrett.28@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.