Dear Brothers and Sisters: This year the Lord grants us, once again, a favourable time to prepare to celebrate with renewed hearts the great mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the cornerstone of our personal and communal Christian life.
~ Pope Francis in his Message for Lent 2020
Pope Francis calls Lent “a favourable time” not once, not twice, but three times in his Lenten message. I was struck by the word choice. Favourable. Is this how I would characterize Lent? Years ago, I might have said no, as I focused on the penitential state of Lent, my own weaknesses, my limitations. Discipline was not my strong suit. I tried hard, but inevitably I realized how often I missed the mark. Today I look forward to Lent. I know that this weakness calls me to depend on the Lord more completely. I’m “better” at Lent – at the discipline and the silence, but I think that’s because I know it’s not through my own efforts, but through prayer and surrender, and a heart that hopefully becomes more open through the years.
I look forward to Lent now. It IS a favourable time. As Pope Francis says, “This new opportunity ought to awaken in us a sense of gratitude and stir us from our sloth.” Our call to prayer, fasting, and alms reminds us of that which we are always called to as disciples, but which can become overshadowed at times by life’s distractions, by the noise of the world, our own busy-ness, our own brokenness. St. Benedict recognized this when he said that although a monk’s life should always take on the Lenten character, few have strength for this. So Lent calls us to add something extra in our prayer and to take away some of our preferred comforts so as to remember and help others in need. This he said would help us “await Holy Easter with the joy of spiritual longing.”
Lent reminds us, says Pope Francis, “We are dust in the universe. Yet we are dust loved by God.” That is a reason for joy. If we were journeying through Lent without the knowledge of Easter, we’d have reason to be downcast, as the disciples on the road to Emmaus were downcast, but we know how the story ends!
Lent instead of being a season only draped in penance is indeed favourable. Lent draw us into our bodies even as it calls us beyond our physical realities. There is both a spiritual and a corporeal quality to this season. As we are marked in the sign of the cross with ashes on our foreheads, as we have our feet washed, as we bow with reverence before, or touch, or kiss, the cross on Good Friday, and as we fast, we are called to deeper prayer, deeper dialogue with God. The rituals are felt, but draw us toward what we can only know through faith. I read a poem by a minister who had traced the cross on the forehead of a woman who would not be alive the following year. The woman bore that cross with dignity, he said, making him aware that this was more than an action of the body. There is such an intimacy in these sacred moments that beckons to us throughout Lent: “Come closer.”
At our most recent board meetings, we have recognized the desert we walk through today. NCCL experiences a type of pilgrimage today, as we study the changing landscape and ask all those who set out on this mission Jesus charged us with (to go and make disciples), “Who are we called to be today?” We are engaged in fervent prayer as we discern how do we walk with one another? And although it might be difficult to bear the recognition of our weaknesses, to see where we miss the mark, to deny ourselves throughout this time to look away – – – it is a favourable time. There is joy, and grace, and hope, in opening ourselves to the Spirit. And so, we wish you a grace-filled and hope-filled Lent, as we await the joy of Easter.
Lent comes providentially to awaken us, to shake us from our lethargy.
~ Pope Francis
By Denise Utter
Note: I use the original version of “favourable” that the pope uses in his message throughout the article so as not to switch back and forth between the American and British versions of the word.