February 14, 2024 at 9:31 a.m.

The faces of Lent

This season is, in the long run, all about love — the love of a God who yearns for our love.
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

By Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

It starts with a smudge. Or what may look like one. On Ash Wednesday, not everyone gets the cross that they might have hoped for on their forehead. We have little control over the skill of whomever imposes our ashes and maybe it’s just as well. We all have to learn to accept the cross that the Lord wishes us to bear for reasons known to him alone. That’s one of the first lessons of Lent. It’s not about what we do or want to do “for God,” but what God wishes to accomplish in us.

Let’s reflect on this for a moment. In preparing for this most holy of seasons in the liturgical cycle, we often make little lists of the things we want to do during Lent. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the traditional practices of Lent for entering into its spiritual discipline, the patterns that we hope will bring us closer to Jesus, to a more intimate union with him. If this is indeed where “giving up” something good leads us, to a more personal encounter with our Lord, to a deeper awareness of his love for us, what he has done and continues to do, then we have no doubt made the right choices. If, on the other hand, we find ourselves becoming irritable, edgy or even judgmental of others who are not behaving as we think they might, then we might consider another course of action. 

Lent is not about adding burdens to our own lives so much as lifting them from the lives of others. This is what we admire about Simon of Cyrene, who helps Jesus carry his cross. It’s what “fasting” from the pleasures of an overextended meal or video game might enable us to find time for in writing to, or calling or visiting a lonely or ailing friend. It’s the “almsgiving” that the donation of our precious time to a parish night of prayer or Eucharistic adoration, or to a soup kitchen or food pantry that might provide us an occasion of grace. All of these actions can be tucked in prayer. All of them free us from the personal burdens of excessive consumption while relieving others from their own solitude. Did not Jesus himself seek the attentive presence of his closest friends: “Could you not watch one hour with me?”

I mention Simon of Cyrene. His is one of the faces that we encounter during Lent. Pondering the opportunities our Lenten practices offer for drawing closer to God and especially Jesus himself on his earthly journey to Calvary, the Cross of our Salvation, I find myself browsing through the Sunday readings that we will be hearing over the six weeks in Lent. I was surprised by the many personalities we encounter, people with whom God struck up intensely personal relationships, all of which parallel God’s search for our own hearts each day. Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Moses, the man born blind, the woman at the well, Lazarus, Martha and Mary, Peter, James and John. So many faces. So many personalities. 

That smudge of a cross on our forehead that may have felt so very impersonal as we were reminded of that most generic truth about our human identity — that we are dust and into dust we shall return — begins to take on a surprising and, ultimately, exhilarating definition as we discover the depth of God’s desire to enter our lives personally and to give us an identity so strong that even death cannot deny us our eternal destiny! And we discover it as we enter into the depth of those relationships with the faces, the personalities we meet during Lent. Each of those persons in some way could be you or me.

This First Sunday of Lent we meet Noah. Let’s start with him. He shows up in chapter six of Genesis when God is looking for some human being who would not grieve his heart because so many had turned to evil ways. We do not know much about Noah except that he stuck with God and led his family along the same path of righteousness. Basically, however, Noah is just a guy, and God puts him to work. We know the story of the ark. We read, “Noah complied; he did just as God had commanded him” (Gn 6:22). 

I find myself thinking of the many men and women who tell me that all they are trying to do is follow God’s will for them and to lead their families along the right path. Sometimes it does not work out that the family follows along. The agony of so many parents whose children do not seem to be carrying on the faith after they leave college, or even after their confirmation, which Pope Francis once quipped would be “the Sacrament of goodbye” for some!

In the Hebrew Scriptures, what we Christians often call the “Old Testament,” it is the unique role of the father to instruct his children in the law, in God’s word, the ways of the Lord. Much of this is done by example, of course, which is always the best teacher. Actions speak louder than words. Lent could be a time for every Christian adult, not just the physical fathers of children, to take stock of the leadership role each of us holds in helping young people find their way. 

So many people of college age — whether or not they actually are attending or have graduated — are shiftless, despondent and uncertain about where their lives are leading. Not all of them, of course, but an alarming number in our country have become entrenched in various forms of addiction, to their games, devices and, sad to say, various chemical dependencies, not to mention the ubiquitous pornography-centered addictions, which often result in numerous relational disabilities, including impotence and violence in men. One of the goals of every adult could be to help a young person in their circle of influence to find a stable path, to mentor him or her in discerning a way of life that will lead to happiness and fulfillment. Noah-like, the young person could be led to board a kind of vessel that will protect him or her from the storms of a purely secular culture that will exhaust and devour them spiritually, economically and emotionally.

If we as Christian adults do not find a way to guide our young people, who will? Noah was a righteous man, which means that he put God and God’s will first in his life. How important is it for us to remind young people that they are children of a God who loves them intimately, who has plans for them and that this way can be discovered by turning in trust to God for direction. Jesus himself led by his example, even giving us a prayer that begins, “Our Father …,” to his Father and ours. A good friend of mine has recently rediscovered the power of this prayer and, with great effect, has recommended it to his son. It’s so simple, but it’s a powerful message from a father, from a loving adult, that sets a young person’s focus on our soul’s true “North Star.”

Of course, I have been speaking throughout this article in metaphor and symbol. The faces of Lent that we encounter, the examples and images they provide for us, are indeed iconic. An icon is like a picture that stands for deeper realities than itself. I am no expert in the iconography so prominently displayed in the ritual (Eastern) Christian churches, but I am told every slight gesture or position they depict has a specific meaning. The person who prays before the icon may or may not be fully aware, but there is something almost mystical that accompanies the image if one contemplates it with faith, a certain presence that uses this medium to reach the soul of the faithful one. 

A human face can be an icon. To see the eyes of a Mother ­Teresa or a Padre Pio is an almost mystical encounter with the kindness of a God who thirsts for our hearts. When Jesus asks for a drink, whether from the woman at the well or on the cross itself, it is a cry to the human heart, for our love to satisfy that longing from the depths of the all-high God. That is why we can be sure that Lent is, in the long run, all about love — the love of a God who yearns for our love. The many faces of Lent remind us of the ways throughout salvation history that God chooses men and women who will allow a home for him in their hearts. If we take this seriously and decide to make this Lent about preparing a place for Jesus in our hearts, then it becomes all the more likely that we will bring many others to Jesus, who is always an attractive force. Even children followed him. Children do not follow a cranky person.

 @AlbanyDiocese


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