Sunday, April 16, 2017

Lenten Journeys

Catholic spiritual leaders often invite the faithful to go on a journey during lent. I did one this year from TMIY and it was very good. What strikes me now is that it is over. Why is that? The liturgical journey we are on is not over. We have 40 days of lent where we do penance and focus on our sin and our frailty. We need that. Sin runs deep in us and we need to take some serious time to deal with it. Yet that is not the whole story. Lent gives way to Easter. Easter is not just a party. It is a season of joy and victory. It is 50 days rather than 40. That is not just because we want to enjoy good things longer than we want to deprive ourselves of them. It is also because living the joy and victory is also a complex business. 

Now that we have, hopefully, had some success in controlling our passions and dealing with the sin in our life the question of how to best use that freedom from sin. Consider these words of Jesus from Luke 11:
24“When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ 25When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. 26Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.”
Jesus is explaining one danger of just focusing on fighting sin. When we win the battle against sin we can have a bit of a spiritual vacuum. If we don't fill that with virtue and positive activity then other vices or even the same vice can come back. The church gets this. That is why the journey does not end with Easter. It ends with Pentecost. Really it needs to continue into ordinary time because it is only when our ordinary life is changed that we know a permanent improvement has happened.

Yet almost all the lenten journey stuff you see ends when the 40 days is over. The 40 days is not followed up with a 50 days that prepares you to launch into something really big and exciting. It is like we are done. We don't see Easter as a victory that changes the game in our favor but rather as something that ends the game. We keep saying we are a resurrection people but don't really think deeply about what that means. It does not help that Pentecost occurs at the beginning of summer. Churches are more interested in taking a break at that point than challenging people to start something new.

Now a lot of lenten programs get this. Then know that just focusing on sin and penance is not complete. Yet rather than add an Easter portion to their journey the incorporate much of that into lent. The trouble is the two parts of the journey need to be separated. Often we find one part easier than the other and we do that part well and neglect the other. Two spiritual seasons for two different aspects of growth makes sense. Yet we don't do it. People are willing to put out effort for the lenten season but they don't want to do much for Easter. 

So what does Easter look like? Think of the disciples on the first Easter. Jesus dies. Jesus rises. There is immediate joy. Yet it is hard for them to figure out what is next. Jesus stays for a while and totally convinces them He is really alive. The He commissions them. Then He leaves. We go through the same sort of thing. We die during lent. If we did it right we rise again with new life. Yet what does it mean? 

First of all, it should strengthen our faith. When we embraced prayer, fasting and alms-giving we ended up not losing our life like common sense would indicate but gaining a richer life like Jesus promised. That is experiencing the truth of the gospel on a very personal and practical level. Often we end up breaking bad habits we once thought were unbreakable. Like the old song says, "You ask me how I know He lives, He lives within my heart." That kind of power acting inside our hearts should blow us away as much as seeing Jesus rise blew away the disciples.

Secondly, it should put us in touch with our spiritual gifts. When we rid ourselves of sin we don't lose our identity but we become who we are truly meant to be. We start to enter into the intimate communion with God we were created for. Think of the church in Acts 2 and the detachment they experienced from earthly goods and their hunger for the word of God and the sacraments. 

Anyway, this is getting long. My point is that lent is not the end of the journey. It is step one. Often it is the hardest step. Still when you get it right you want to keep going.

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