One of the London Oratory fathers who died a few years ago used to say that to observe Lent well it is necessary that we do not observe it perfectly. In chapters to puzzled novices he explained what he meant. A great obstacle to spiritual growth is pride. If, at the end of the penitential season, we feel pleased with ourselves thanks to an unblemished record of fasting, praying and almsgiving, then our Lent has been a failure. It would be better occasionally to have lapsed in the resolutions that were made on Ash Wednesday, if this has made us humbler and if we have persevered in trying to keep a good Lent.
This is a principle that stands for the Christian life in general. Sin is the greatest possible evil. And yet we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Confessing our sins – especially if we enunciate them to another human being in the Sacrament of Penance – is profoundly humbling. The humility that accompanies the penitent’s gratitude for God’s mercy is an essential foundation for all of the blessings that He wishes to build in our lives. Our failures can actually be far more useful to God than our successes.
By the time this edition of The Oratory Parish Magazine rolls off the press, it is likely that most of us will have been humbled during the last few weeks, as broken resolutions have had to be remade. If we have deluded ourselves into believing that our Lenten observance has in fact been faultless then it is probably time to examine our consciences a little more thoroughly. The Lenten precept to give alms is a reminder that it is only when we are living in charity that our self-denial and devotions can be pleasing to God. Has our exercise of charity – in our deeds and words, even in our thoughts – really left nothing to be desired? What about sins of omission? Have there been opportunities to bring God’s love into other’s lives that we have let slip for the sake of our own comfort? To paraphrase St John of the Cross, at the end of Lent we shall be judged on love.
In the Christian life, resolutions are not just something to be made on New Year’s Day and Ash Wednesday. Our good resolutions have to be renewed every day of the year, along with prayers for the supernatural assistance we need to keep these resolutions in a way that is pleasing to God. We also need to be on our guard against the insidious demon who tries to convince us that having fallen so often we might as well give up altogether. Hearken instead to the words spoken by Pope Francis at the beginning of his pontificate and repeated in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium: “God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy.”
Humbled by our failures then, and emboldened by Our Lord’s promise “Ask and ye shall receive”, let us renew our Lenten resolutions to fast, to pray and to give alms or perform other acts of charity according to our means.
Anyone who is enduring a real struggle keeping Lent should ask the question: ‘Am I making an effort to keep Lent liturgically?’ The liturgy gives meaning to our self-denial and serves to reinforce our efforts, both through the petitions for divine assistance with which the Church bombards Heaven at this time of year, and by the richness of liturgical symbolism.
Through the Church’s sacramental life this symbolism becomes efficacious, meaning that it actually bestows the graces that it signifies. In the words of St Paul, in our Baptism, we have been buried with Christ. The closing of the waters over our heads signifies our descent into the Tomb, having been united with Our Lord’s Death. As we rise from the waters, it is with the new life of the Resurrection coursing through us. And in that moment of our Baptism, we receive the vocation to keep dying to ourselves in this life, so that the supernatural life of the Resurrection might take ever-greater possession of our hearts and souls. This is the context in which the mortification (‘putting-to-death’) aspect of Lent has to be understood.
At Mass we are able to participate in an intimate way in Our Lord’s Death and Resurrection. Our acts of self-denial mean that we have something real to present in the way of sacrifice along with the gifts of bread and wine. During the Offertory, we should “offer up” our own sacrifices and sufferings, along with everything we have and everything we are, when the celebrant holds up first the paten and then the chalice. This is the way that we participate “actively” in the Mass, ensuring that we are truly, if mystically, united to the Sacrifice of Calvary when that Sacrifice is made present on the altar, and also united with Our Lord’s Living and Risen Body in the Blessed Sacrament after the words of Consecration. Good Friday and Easter Sunday are made present in every Mass.
As the season of Lent progresses, the Church’s liturgy plays these Mysteries of salvation in slow motion, so that we are able to participate in them with more reflection and greater intensity than usual. On Passion Sunday, we come to Mass to find all statues and images veiled. These shrouds serve as a memento mori, reminding us to renew our Lenten mortification so that we have something more substantial to unite with Our Lord’s Passion in Holy Week.
On Holy Thursday, we enter the mystery of the institution of the Sacrifice of the Mass and of the Sacrament of Our Lord’s Body and Blood at the Last Supper. At the end of that Mass, we accompany the Blessed Sacrament to the Altar of Repose, to unite ourselves with Our Lord’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. On Good Friday, we find the altars stripped and bleak. For three hours, we watch and venerate the Cross- and this is pretty much on empty stomachs, Good Friday and Ash Wednesday being the only two real fast days that remain in the Church’s calendar. The Blessed Sacrament is consumed at the end of the Liturgy of Our Lord’s Passion, so that for the rest of the day and throughout Holy Saturday the empty tabernacles bring us face to face with the desolation of Jerusalem after Our Lord’s death and burial.
Then, Deo Gratias, the flame that flickers in the darkness of the night at the beginning of the Easter Vigil suggests that something is stirring in the Tomb, until finally the explosion of bells, music and light that erupts at the beginning of the Gloria in excelsis leaves us in no doubt: Christ is risen, sin and death have been conquered, and the Church cannot contain Her jubilation.
The Liturgy ensures that we follow this drama not as mere spectators, but as real participants. And the more we unite ourselves to Our Lord’s Passion during Lent through acts of sacrificial love, the more fully we shall be able to participate in the joy and the life of the Resurrection on Easter Day.