Lent 2022: Don't Let it Catch You by Surprise
Fr. Satish Joseph
Super Bowl LVI is over, leaving some ecstatic and others crushed. Soon it will be time for March Madness – a thrilling twenty-one-day extravaganza of exceptional sportsmanship. Perhaps not as extravagant or thrilling, but Lent 2022 is also on the horizon. Is anybody screaming with excitement?
It is customary for me to wait until Shrove or Fat Tuesday to post a reflection on Lent. I’ve chosen to go rogue this year. This early reflection is meant to help readers ease themselves purposefully into Lent rather than find themselves barely making it to church in time for ashes on Ash Wednesday. After all, Lent is no small affair. It is forty days long (more than forty if you include Sundays). Forty days is so long that the Church calls Lent a ‘season.’ We are about to enter the ‘season of Lent,’ so it is worth taking time to reflect, discern, and determine what we might make of Lent 2022.
More than Ashes and Meatless Fridays
I detest stereotypes. Just like the terms ‘C&E Christians’ is a stereotype, so also is the description of Catholics who may be inactive in church for most of the year but are certain to get ashes on Ash Wednesday and abstain from meat on Fridays of Lent. I find this very encouraging because it shows that, even if remotely, such people have not lost their Catholic identity; that their Catholicism remains engrained in their subconscious. Nevertheless, it is also possible that Lent remains relegated to ashes and meatless Fridays. Lent is much more than ashes and meatless Fridays.
Hearing the Call of Lent
The call of Lent is to conversion, transformation, and renewal. The Ash Wednesday scripture readings set the tone for Lent. The very first verse of the very first reading proclaims: “Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God” (Joel 2:12). Lent is unambiguous, is it not? The call and purpose of Lent is as clear as the sun on a cloudless day. Lent is an invitation to return to God with our hearts rended—not merely ashes and meatless Fridays.
In more specificly Christian language, Lent is a time to enter the desert with Jesus. But why? We enter the desert with Jesus for the same reasons that Jesus entered the desert – to embrace our humanity and our divinity; to come to terms with the temptations that hinder us but also to recognize God’s grace in the midst of it all; to convince ourselves that “man does not live on bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4); to set ourselves firmly on the path to the new life that Easter promises; to be on the way to eternal life with God.
Jesus himself offers us the way to accomplish this goal. Once again, the scripture readings for Ash Wednesday are helpful. The gospel reading offers fasting, prayer, and almsgiving as practical ways in which to answer the Lenten call to conversation, transformation, and renewal.
If you are looking to trim some body fat, tone up your muscles, and regain that glowing skin, get yourself a personal trainer. The purpose of Lenten fasting is not to shed those extra pounds. Fasting is about the spirit more than the body. Bodily fasting is meant to create spiritual hunger – a desire to return to the Lord with our “whole heart” (Joel 2:12). By the end of Lent, the hope is that our hearts beat in unison with the heart of Jesus. In these two weeks before Lent, take time to connect with the hunger within you. And if you do not sense a spiritual hunger at the beginning of Lent 2022, let the Lenten denial of food to the body (fasting) get you starving.
Abstinence is another dimension of fasting. For those whom fasting is a medical or health hazard, abstinence is equally demanding. Giving up meat on Fridays in Lent is one way we can do this. However, abstinence need not be limited to denying ourselves edibles or potables. Abstinence from rushing into judgements, giving into hate, greed, procrastination, deceit, or a self-centered living can also offer challenging possibilities.
My biggest advice in this area is, don’t be over ambitious. The goal of fasting is spiritual renewal rather than heroic pursuits.
Lent without prayer is like ‘March Madness’ without the ‘madness’. If fasting is not accompanied by prayer, then it becomes a futile exercise. Prayer and fasting go together like cake and icing, milk and cream, pop and fizz – one without the other is incomplete. It is the combination of fasting and prayer that accomplishes the total effect. Fasting connects us with spiritual hunger, whereas prayer satisfies our spiritual hunger in the same way that food satisfies a starving belly. Prayer allows God to enter the depths of the soul.
Prepare ahead, then.
Over the next two weeks, plan the kind of prayer that will characterize Lent 2022 for you. There is no one-model-fits-all in prayer. Scripture readings of the day along with some quiet time for reflection and making real-life transformation inspired by this spiritual exercise is ideal. But let your own spiritual instincts guide you. Don’t overlook Catholic Lenten devotionals such as a weekly Way of the Cross, a daily rosary, the daily Mass, or the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. Meditative and contemplative practices such as the Spiritual Exercises, Lectio Divina, and centering prayer are also deeply fruitful. But as Therese of the Child Jesus would insist, “Pray as you can!” Yes, keep it simple.
As much as Lent begins with an exhortation to personal conversion, transformation, and renewal, in fact, the Lenten invitation is to the whole assembly. Again, the Ash Wednesday Scripture readings are our inspiration. Joel says, “Blow the trumpet in Zion! Proclaim a fast, call an assembly; gather the people, notify the congregation; assemble the elders, gather the children and the infants at the breast… (Joel 2:15-16).
As much as Lent is a personal call, it is the journey of an entire people. There is an undeniable communal dimension to Lent. Nothing brings out the focus on the communal element of Lent than Jesus’ call to almsgiving. Jesus does not say, “If you give alms…,” rather, “When you give alms do not blow the trumpet” (Mt 6:3). Lenten Almsgiving is not a suggestion. It is an exhortation. It is an essential dimension of Lent. The emphasis is understandable. Fasting and prayer can become self-serving, inward-looking, navel-gazing spiritual exercises. Rather, fasting and prayer are meant to lead us closer to God and to the community, particularly those on the fringes. Besides personal conversion, transformation and renewal, Lent is also meant to facilitate God’s kingdom “on earth as it is heaven” (Mt 6:10).
Just as with fasting and prayer, almsgiving can take on many forms. Certainly, acts of charity in kind is a concrete way of being generous as the heavenly Father is generous. However, almsgiving is also a call to eliminate structures of injustice, inequality, and poverty that create the need for almsgiving it the first place. Climate justice, racial equality, immigration reform, and creating a culture of life can all be included with Jesus’ call to almsgiving.
Once again, keep it simple. Remember, that the goal is not to look back at Lent 2022 and be proud about our accomplishments, but rather to ensure that the world, the church, the community may see our good deeds and give glory to God (Mt 5:16).
In two weeks, we will be in church for Ash Wednesday. Ashes will be imposed on our foreheads and a minister will say to us, “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.” It is stark reminder to us of our destiny without the grace of God. Lent, however, is an invitation to embrace the destiny that Jesus’ death and resurrection has prepared for us. Through conversion, transformation, and renewal, may Lent 2022 bring us closer to our eternal destiny.