This is the last Sunday before we start the season of Lent. Ash Wednesday is this Wednesday. If we have not already been thinking about them, we need to think about the Lenten disciplines of prayer, almsgiving, and fasting that we will begin in a few days.
The scripture for today directs our minds to the deeper meaning of those Lenten disciplines. Lent is about much more than not eating goodies, and adding the Stations of the Cross to our Fridays, and putting spare change away for the poor. These are all good things, but they are not ends in themselves. Lent has an end, and Lent has a purpose. The readings today give us clues to that end and to that purpose.
Anyone familiar with the Church calendar knows that Lent ends with the Easter Vigil Mass on the night of Holy Saturday. In one way, that is the end of Lent. The end in time, so to speak. But what about the end as in the reason we do what we do during Lent? What is the end purpose and spiritual end of Lent?
The reading from Sirach today offers an answer: “tribulation is the test of the just.” Sirach is full of wisdom, and he expresses his thoughts in simple language, as he says, “As the test of what the potter molds is in the furnace, so in tribulation is the test of the just.” If you remember the art class project to make a clay bowl, the teacher always warned us to knead the clay thoroughly because air bubbles might mean the bowl would explode when it was heated in the kiln. Heating in the kiln proves the bowl is ready for use. Heating in the kiln is how the bowl can become fully formed for its purpose.
Well, we are the clay and God is the potter, and he gives us chances to be tested under tribulation. We know he loves us, for we can think back in our lives to the times when he met us where we were. We were lonely and he sent an angel of friendship. We were in need, and he sent an angel of generosity. We were tied up in lives of habitual self-destruction, and he sent an angel of strength to pull us up and set us on our feet again.
God loves us enough to meet us where we are, and he loves us even more, for he does not want us to stay there. After rescuing us, He invites us to walk with him on the journey of our lives, so that we can meet him where he is at the end of the journey.
And Lent is a time to practice those things that will prepare us to meet him at the end of our lives. Sirach uses the image of sifting today: “When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear; so do one’s faults when one speaks.” The journey of our lives involves a lot of being shaken in our sifter so that the earthly attachments can fall out and the devotion to God can remain. Hear again Sirach’s words: “in tribulation is the test of the just.”
We want to be counted among the just when Jesus comes in judgment, so we should really try to welcome tribulation because it is the test of the just. We are the clay in the kiln, waiting for the day when we can be taken out of the oven and put where we were made to be. But we are not actually clay, are we? We are human persons, endowed with intellect and will. We choose to try to be numbered among the just, and we seek understanding on how to achieve our goal.
That’s where the Lenten disciplines come in.
Fasting is not an end in itself; it is the means to an end. In our secular world, fasting is a form of dieting. In the Christian world, fasting is a form of prayer through self-denial. We give up something we may rightfully have so that we can be more conformed to Christ. Christ gave up everything for us, and his self-sacrifice is our model and how God made us to be.
Prayer is pretty straightforward, but it is not an end in itself; it is the means to a closer relationship with God. God made us to be in close relationship with Him. St. Paul, in one of his letters, told us to “pray without ceasing.” Most of us do not meet that standard, but that is the end God made us for. And Lent gives us a set time in the year to add to our prayer lives and get a little bit more conformed to Christ.
Almsgiving is also not an end in itself; the intention of the giver is very important. All our talents were given to us by God, and he gives his gifts freely and joyfully. Lenten almsgiving is a chance to practice liberality in our giving of money. I know a couple of guys who have always gripped their money tightly. We are pretty sure that when they both grabbed the same penny and pulled, they invented copper wire. All of us are tempted into gripping our money too tightly. Lent is a time to loosen our grip on money and grow in generosity so that we are more like the eternally generous God who made us.
Lent is six weeks long, with 40 days of fasting. It’s almost a perfect tithe of a year. Maintaining these disciplines will stretch us, and there will be days in Lent when we might regret giving up coffee or ice cream or whatever else we gave up. At those points, let us be reminded by the words of St. Paul in today’s epistle.
Lent is a season of prayer. Lent is a season of preparation for the gift Jesus came at Christmas to give us: the gift of redemption on the Cross on Good Friday and the joy of the resurrection on Easter Sunday. Our Lenten labors are the work of the Lord, and we do not labor in vain when we do them.
The purpose of our lives is to know, to love, and to serve God, so we can be with him in the next life. He continually comes down to our level and helps us in our struggles. Lent is a time to focus on being ready to meet him on his level. God’s level is Heaven, where there is no money and no eating. So in Lent we work to lessen our attachments to earthly things through almsgiving and fasting. In Heaven, there is constant prayer to the Lamb upon his throne, so in Lent we work to become more comfortable with more prayer.
We are about to receive our Lord at Holy Communion, and we will receive innumerable graces in the sacrament. Let’s use Lent as a time of grace to conform ourselves more closely to Christ through self-sacrifice and prayer.