Lent: the Church's Great Retreat

Friday, Mar. 04, 2011
Lent: the Church's Great Retreat + Enlarge
The Most Rev. John C. Wester, Bishop of Salt Lake City, will celebrate the beginning of Lent with a Mass at noon on Ash Wednesday at the Cathedral of the Madeleine.

By Jakob Rinderknecht

Special to the Intermountain Catholic

As we approach the season of Lent once again, it’s a good idea to consider, once again, why we observe this season each year. It’s easy enough to decide to give up something minor, eat pricey fish on Fridays and count down the days until it’s all over. Asking ourselves why we observe Lent each year might help us to observe it in a way that might actually lead us closer to Christ.

The Church has long referred to the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist as the Easter mysteries. Lent has its roots in the Church’s preparation of catechumens for participation in that mystery. If we think of Lent and Easter as forming one central mystery at the heart of Christian faith, a mystery that we enter through the sacraments, then each year we have a new opportunity to return to the mystery at the center of our lives.

This mystery is most clearly celebrated in the Great Three Days, or Triduum, of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil. Here we re-experience the mystery of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection. The 50 days of Easter are our celebration of God’s victory in Jesus over death and the grave for us, but before we celebrate the new life we receive, we spend 40 days preparing to enter into this great mystery. The disciplines of Lent, fasting, prayer and almsgiving are designed to work together to help us die to ourselves and be raised again with Christ.

Fasting is an ancient practice in many cultures. In the Christian tradition, it hearkens back to Jesus’ own practice of withdrawing from society for fasting and prayer. The Desert Fathers and Mothers, monks and nuns of the Egyptian desert, believed that fasting was a path for the Christian to struggle with what they called the ‘thoughts’ or ‘temptations.’ These thoughts were the eight things that could distract a monk from praying: gluttony, lust, greed, sadness, anger, acedia (distraction and apathy), vainglory (failing to trust in God), and pride.

Gluttony always led the list because the Fathers and Mothers taught that it was the first that a Christian would have to combat. The reason for this is simple: Eating is a basic and necessary part of human life. Even after fleeing to the desert, monks and nuns would have to eat, even if other temptations were far away.

But fasting is never for its own sake. Fasting is practice to free us for prayer, and for service of neighbor. In the desert, the Fathers and Mothers spent their days in prayer, and often weaving reed mats that could be sold so that they would have money for alms for the poor.

In baptism we die to ourselves and are raised in Christ, we are strengthened in the Spirit in Confirmation, and together receive and become Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist. This is the mystery we celebrate in the Triduum, and for which we prepare during Lent.

Each Christian is invited by the Church to join the annual preparation for Easter – the great retreat of the Church as we prepare again with new catechumens for incorporation into Christ. This is the purpose of Lent – seeking the heart of the mystery that we live as Christians. Our fasting is more than avoiding sweets, it is the first step in being configured to Christ. It allows us to enter into prayer and come to know God better. In this, we are freed to share what we have with others and live in the kingdom of God to which Jesus invites us.

Jakob Rinderknecht teaches adult religious education and is a member of the RCIA team at the Cathedral of the Madeleine.

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