Q: Father John, How can I better prepare for Lent this year?
A: You have no idea what God has in store for you this Lent (but God does, and he is looking forward to it!). On the other hand, you do know that God has chosen to work in our souls through the Liturgy, and that includes the liturgical seasons. So preparing for Lent means getting ready to hear and heed what God wants to say to you during those days. The Church gives us three general directives in this regard.
First, intensify our prayer life. Start thinking now about how you can do this. It’s a good topic to talk about in spiritual direction. Do you need to increase your Eucharistic life, give more discipline to your personal prayer time, inculcate family prayer time, go on a retreat? God will put something on your heart. But be realistic. Don’t let your eyes be bigger than your stomach (in the spiritual sense).
Second, embrace the Cross. Lent is a penitential season, a time when we remember how self-centered we have been and tend to be, and renew our commitment and efforts at repenting and growing in Christian love. This is the origin of the tradition of “giving something up for Lent.” The idea is to make a sacrifice, denying our naturally self-indulgent tendencies in some way in order to unite ourselves more fully to Christ’s redeeming sacrifice on Calvary. This is not merely a self-help kind of resolution. It is a self-offering to God: “Lord, many times I have chosen to do my own will instead of yours. By offering this sacrifice I want to learn to take up my cross, to say “yes” to you and your will, following in Jesus’ footsteps.” Whatever we give up (e.g. watching sports, eating desert) or take on (e.g. daily Mass, weekly Way of the Cross) as our Lenten sacrifice (again, be realistic), the key is to give it that truly Christ-centered meaning.
Third, the practice Christian charity. Lent is a time to prepare for the fruitful celebration of the Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection during Holy Week. That Paschal Mystery was God’s unfathomable and amazing testimony of love for us sinners. There is no better way to get in tune with that self-forgetful and self-sacrificial love than by imitating it. During Lent we should make a special point of serving our neighbors – but here again, be realistic. Here the traditional corporal works of mercy can spark ideas. The Catechism reminds us of them (#2447):
Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead.243 Among all these, giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God
Something in the air of spring brings out new buds, new branches, new life. The word “Lent” has its etymological roots in an Old English word meaning “spring.” Something in the air of Lent will bring out new buds, new branches, new life in our relationship with Christ; we just have to open up some windows.
Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek
Catholic Spiritual Direction