By BISHOP EDWARD J. BURNS
‘A Bishop’s Perspective’ column in the Juneau Empire
March 2, 2014
The weather this past week has been fantastic with cold but sunny days, and it seems as though it may continue into the beginning of this week. There is no doubt in my mind that we still have some more winter weather in store, but it’s obvious that spring is on its way. As the weather starts to get a little warmer and the days become longer, I realize that I need to do some spring cleaning inside and outside my house.
As spring comes closer and the thought of cleaning things up (and out) come to mind, I have always seen this time of year as an opportunity to do some spiritual housecleaning as well.
Lent begins this week with Ash Wednesday. Lent (from the Old English word for spring) begins this Wednesday and lasts for 40 days until the celebration of the Easter Triduum — the remembrance of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. During Lent, the entire Christian community joins together in cleaning house.
The first step in spring cleaning is to identify what needs to be repaired, cleaned up or thrown away. Hard as it might be to believe, this seems to be what lies behind the celebrations of Carnival or Mardi Gras which lead up to the beginning of Lent.
The English historian John Bossy notes that Carnival was not a holdover from the pre-Christian past but began as a sincere Christian folk custom in medieval Europe. Carnival developed not so much as a last fling before the austerities of Lent but as preparation for the upcoming Lenten season of spiritual renewal, fasting, penance and self-denial.
The celebrations of Mardi Gras and Carnival serve as dramatic and public ways of highlighting our over-attachment to food and drink, consumption and pleasure as well as identifying which of our personal habits and relationships need to fixed up, washed clean or given up entirely.
Pope Francis, in his Lenten message this year, invites all of us to reflect on our own spiritual and moral poverty and how we can be freed from that poverty by our solidarity with those who struggle to overcome poverty in their lives. He notes that each of us can identify our moral and spiritual poverty by examining our attachments and addictions.
During this springtime we have the opportunity to throw out the junk that has piled up interiorly, those resentments and grudges we hold onto, the forgiveness we are too proud to ask for, the habit or habits we know are harmful to ourselves or others but are sure we can’t live without.
The traditional spiritual tools for a thorough Lenten spring cleaning are fasting, prayer, almsgiving and penance.
Fasting has three primary spiritual aims. The first is the practice of self-denial, turning away from some good such as food, drink or entertainment, so as to create space in one’s life for prayer, acts of penance and charitable service and giving. The second purpose is to subdue the will in the small matter of food and drink, so as to conform one’s will to God’s will by loving God and loving our neighbor. The third aim of fasting is sacrificial, so that by forgoing food, drink or entertainment, one redirects those resources to the care of the poor — our act of solidarity with them.
Through prayer, the 40 days of Lent are an extended period of time to go deeper into a relationship with God. The type and duration of prayer will vary from person to person. But Lent is the prime time to renew those prayer practices that one may have allowed to lapse.
Almsgiving is the opportunity to give money, goods or a service to someone who cannot repay you. The English word “alms” comes from the Greek word for mercy, and that is the point of almsgiving, which is to help us to become more like Jesus, the mercy and the compassion of God. When we give to others without the expectation of reciprocity, we are not only imitating Jesus but we become more appreciative of the infinite generosity and mercy of God, who pours out his gifts on us without expecting anything in return except our love and goodwill. Almsgiving also helps us to deepen in ourselves and in society the virtue of oneness with those who are poor and in need.
Lent is the season of penance. It is during these 40 days that we confront our sinfulness and do penance for our offenses against God and our neighbor. We are able to face ourselves because of our confidence in the mercy, compassion and love of the Lord, who is ready to pardon all those who turn to him seeking forgiveness. Lent is the time during which we contemplate the power of sin in our lives and in our society and world, to do penance in atonement for the harm we have done personally and corporately.
If you seek personal growth and desire to do some spring cleaning of your inner self, embrace the challenges of the Lenten season.