Lent: Are you a Beginner, Intermediate or Advanced?
Michael C. Barber, SJ
When I look at the Christ figure "in majesty" over the high altar of our Cathedral of Christ the Light, I can't help but think of Lent. That image of Christ is from a carving over a door of the Cathedral of Chartres in France.
The church was dedicated in 1220, and was built in record time: 27 years, as opposed to 200 years for many medieval cathedrals. The bishop of Chartres raised funds quickly in part by allowing parishioners to eat butter during Lent in return for contributions to the building fund. In the 13th century it was forbidden for Catholics to eat meat, fish, poultry, eggs and all dairy products during Lent.
That strict Lenten abstinence is still followed today by the Greek and Russian Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches. Some of us are old enough to remember that, until Vatican II, we Roman Catholics observed daily fasting during Lent, and abstinence from meat on all Fridays of the year. Our Church has lightened the communal observance, but the requirement to do some form of personal Lenten penance or self-sacrifice remains. The purpose is to re-focus our lives on what's really important, what really matters: Reconversion to Christ. As the priests say when they impose ashes on our foreheads: "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel." We can get distracted by the cares and concerns of our worldly life and forget our spiritual goals. "Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return."
Cardinal Dolan of New York calls Lent "Spring Training" for Catholics. Given that Catholics are only required to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and abstain from meat on the Fridays of Lent, what more can we do? Well the most important thing is that we "fast" from any sins or bad behavior. If we've got that pretty much under control, then what?
I found some excellent ideas on the website "66 Things to Give Up or Take Up During Lent." There the author asks if, in undertaking Lenten penance, you are a Beginner, Intermediate or Advanced? (Given that the Catholic Church includes "everybody" it is possible for a 45-year-old businessman to be a "Beginner" and his 12-year-old daughter to be "Advanced.")
1. While driving the car. If you are a Beginner: Listen only to classical music or an audio book. Intermediate: Turn off the radio and enjoy the silence. Advanced: Turn off the radio and say a rosary.
2. In the parking lot. Beginner: Don't take the closest spot to the store. Intermediate: Take the farthest spot from the store. Advanced: Walk to the store or take the bus.
3. Communication. Beginner: If you like email, make a phone call. Intermediate: If you like talking on the phone, write letters. Advanced: Go visit the person.
4. Attendance at Mass. Beginner: Go to Mass once a week in addition to Sunday Mass. Intermediate: Go two or three times a week. Advanced: Go to Mass daily.
5. Dining. Beginner: Don't eat out at restaurants. Intermediate: Make your meals from scratch. Advanced: Grow your own food.
6. Sweets and desserts. Beginner: Give up one particular sweet or treat: like chocolate or ice cream. Intermediate: Give up all sweets. Advanced: I'm pretty sure there's nothing harder than that.
You get the idea. Remember that when you come forward to receive ashes, you are making a public act committing yourself to doing some form of penance, sacrifice or charity for the 40 days of Lent. Welcome to the club.
(I am indebted to Nathan O'Halloran, SJ, for showing me the website: CatholicAllYear.com, where I found these suggestions).
(This was Bishop Barber's homily for Ash Wednesday, March 5, at the Cathedral of Christ the Light.)
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