Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
The amazingly nice weather of last week has certainly gotten us ready for the end of winter and the beginning of spring. No doubt March won’t leave without at least a little reminder that winter in Iowa is rather more than ten weeks long, but spring is certainly on the way – and so, then, is Lent.
Each year, the church gives us this season of Lent just at this time, when our hopes for spring’s renewal of life are rising. Actually, the very word “Lent” has its roots in the old English as a word for spring. Since the spiritual is greater than the merely physical, how much more should our souls anticipate Easter’s renewal of life in Christ! Lent is the season of preparation for that renewal, a “little dying” of our own, by way of discipline, so that we can participate all the more fully in the resurrection and gift of new life of our Lord.
During Lent, we exercise our spiritual muscles, perhaps grown lax with winter’s chill, through renewed efforts of the basics of faith: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. In renewing our life of prayer, we seek to be closer to God (who is never far from us) in our minds. In renewing our discipline of fasting, we seek to be closer to God in our bodies, and less attached to worldly things. In renewing our commitments of charity, we seek to be closer to God in our hearts. Lent, then, touches every part of our person with the offer of renewal, a deeper and stronger commitment to be disciples of the Lord Jesus, refusing “to be mastered by sin.”
How shall we pray? The most important aspect of prayer is to do it regularly, every day. We readily offer intercessory prayer, asking God to give spiritual and bodily gifts to us and to our friends and family, even to people we’ve never met. This is good and necessary prayer, and we all rely on others interceding for us in their prayers, too.
But our prayer should also offer thanks and praise to God, simply because he is God, and not merely because he gives us wonderful gifts throughout our lives. We can do this with very simple words and movements of the soul – “Jesus, I love you!” or “My God, I praise you!” – anywhere and at any time. There are also many kinds of devotional prayers, of which I especially recommend the rosary and the chaplet of mercy.
But in a very special way, the liturgy of the church, and especially the holy Mass, makes a perfect sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God, when the Holy Spirit joins all of our praise to the perfect praise of the son to the father. This is why it’s so important that we go even to Mass daily, if at all possible. If we’ve gotten out of the habit of weekly Mass attendance, Lent is the perfect time to start again.
How shall we fast? Lent offers two primary ways of practicing fasting. First, the “fast and abstinence” from food and meat on certain days is required of most of us, unless we are too young, too old, or too sick. Ash Wednesday (March 1) and Good Friday (April 14) are days of strict fasting for all those aged 18 to 59.
On these days, only one full meal may be eaten, and two smaller meals that together make up less than one full meal and no eating of food in between these meals. In addition, Ash Wednesday and all the Fridays of Lent are days of abstinence, on which meat may not be eaten by all those aged 14 and above (except for those with serious illness).
The second way of practicing fasting is by “giving something up” for Lent. Often this is also a food – soda, or chocolate, alcohol or the like. But giving up bad or excessive habits is also an excellent way to “give something up.” Recently, giving up social media for Lent has become rather popular and is an excellent way to practice balance in how we use it, as long as we don’t make “gluttons” of ourselves after Easter.
How shall we give alms? Charity is supposed to be a special mark of followers of Christ. All of us can stand to grow in charity, and Lent reminds us of this. We should look during Lent for some “extra” opportunity to give something to the needy – and not merely of our material wealth, but also of our time and talent.
As our culture grows increasingly callous, we are surrounded by more and more people who are, or who feel, abandoned. Opportunities to give alms more readily confront us every day, and we never know when a kind word, a cheerful smile, or a simple good deed will make a world of difference for someone.
Do not overlook the blessings of the Lenten season and one more thing, don’t forget how helpful the sacrament of confession can be, especially in Lent. God’s mercy is waiting for us. God is always calling us closer to him, through the church and in our hearts. The hectic pace and constant distractions of our life often make it hard to hear God’s voice, rarely more than a whispering breeze (1 Kgs 19:12).
Lent invites us to pause and listen, to hear and turn again to the savior, so that when he comes, we will not be taken by surprise.
May the Lord bless you in these days with conversion of heart and with every good and necessary gift. Please pray for me, just as I pray daily for all of you.
Your brother in Christ,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City