Lent is supposed to be marked by extra prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Over the next few weeks we will consider each of these in turn.
First, some preliminary points. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are the topics of the central section of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:1-18), with the Our Father at the very center. The Sermon is really fabulous, with a few different points each laid out such that they can be pointed to as the very essence.
For example, the Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes. It is not hard to say that the Beatitudes really are the entirety of Christian teaching, in a nutshell. But then the very center of the Sermon on the Mount is the Our Father, and as we have been arguing on Mondays, the Our Father as a whole, and in fact any one line of it, can also be taken as the very essence of Christianity. All these wonderfully dense, rich lines, ripe for memorization and meditation.
So too the sections on almsgiving, prayer, and fasting can be seen as the heart of the Gospel: to love our neighbor in his need (almsgiving), and God in his richness (prayer), more than we love material comfort (fasting). Or, again, the refrain of this section of the Sermon is “Your Father who sees in secret.” Each of these practices takes us to the heart of our spiritual relationship with God. Each of them cuts us to the heart. To understand what they have to do with the heart, the “secret place,” and with knowing God as Father is, in a sense, to know everything there is to know about Christianity.
A second point. Sometimes we phrase Lent as a preparation for Good Friday, as somehow getting us ready to appreciate what Jesus did for us. That’s okay. But we might actually put it the other way around.
Lent is a time when we dig more deeply into the very central practices of our faith, the very heart of the Sermon on the Mount: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. In a sense, Good Friday and Easter are unnecessary for explaining this. We are simply working harder to be Christians, digging deeper into our faith. Perhaps it is helpful in this context to remember that Lent is not just fasting: it’s about the whole package, Christianity in its essence. Prayer, fasting, almsgiving.
Easter aside, it makes good sense to have some “retreat” times, when we work harder at the essentials, so that they can flow into the rest of our life when we come home from retreat. And to really enter into prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, we need more than a couple days. We get a deeper taste by having a long time. Jesus, in fact, made his own retreat of forty days.
We could see the relationship between Good Friday and Lent not in terms of Lent preparing us for Good Friday, but of Good Friday crowning our Lent. After our forty days of struggle, after our often failed efforts to be better Christians, we look to Christ, and say, thank God, on the Cross he lived perfect prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
He infuses our very meager efforts with the fullness of his Sacred Heart. The Cross reaches out into our Lent, so that we make our efforts, not alone, but in communion with him who really was a man of the Beatitudes, who really was Son of the Father, who really prayed, and fasted, and gave to the needy. We receive alms from him, in all our Lenten efforts.
How then should we think of prayer, as the first pillar of Lent? There is an interesting irony in prayer. Prayer is time of communion with God, of reaching out to him, letting him be our sufficiency, making him the good we seek. The irony is that this is what our whole life should be. It is not entirely wrong if someone says they see no reason for prayer, because their whole life is prayer.
But it is wrong to say that because, in fact, our whole life isn’t prayer – not yet, anyway. We need explicit times of prayer to train ourselves for a life of prayer. In one sense, the Eucharist is the perfect prayer, and everything else is insufficient in comparsion. But we learn to enter into the Eucharist by taking other times of prayer in our life, by practicing what it means to love God through explicit times of prayer. Indeed, even the Eucharist is that in relation to the rest of our life: a time of explicit prayer so we can train ourselves to live prayer in every moment of our life.
That, really, is the heart of Lent: a time of practice, so that when we return to ordinary life, we can live its richness more deeply.
How are you practicing for ordinary life this Lent? How do you practice for life in your times of prayer?