During Ash Wednesday Mass at St. Mary’s University several years ago, professor of psychology, Fr. Peter Doherty, offered an inspiring homily. He spoke of the importance of the Lenten journey and the need for us to reach out and to support others, as well as the need to reflect on the importance of the ‘journey’ of Lent — emphasizing that Lent isn’t a time period, but a process leading to discovery. He reminded us that Lent offers us an opportunity to replenish our spirit, especially when the weight of the world has descended on us. The sacrifice that is made during Lent of giving up coffee, wine, television or whatever else is valued, should be genuinely challenging, but also an opportunity to reflect — perhaps to find relief from ‘things.’
Most important, he suggested, was the need to restart our life’s journey and to change our point of view. He then asked us what event in the Stations of the Cross was repeated three times. ‘Jesus falling,’ someone called out. You could tell that this was exactly what he wanted to hear. In a playful voice he responded: ‘Far be it from me to question the authority of the Church, but I have always thought we needed to re-label those stations. It shouldn’t be Jesus fell. It should be, Jesus got back up.’ Because the triumph of the story is not Christ’s downfall, but rather that He spent His last day on Earth rising, just as later He would rise again from the dead.
To me it’s a powerful, clear message of the importance of point of view, and one that has resonance in our time. Too often we perceive and walk in darkness, even when the light is ahead of us. It is the difficult lesson parents often try to teach their children, to take comfort from adversity and to find the positive; a lesson that we sometimes forget as we ourselves get older and the pressures of our time get heavier. But they are never heavier than the Cross.
This for me is what the Lenten journey has always reaffirmed. Ours is a faith that asks not for vengeance but forgiveness, not rules but understanding, not despair but hope. And the narrative of the Stations of the Cross and the paschal journey provides one of the most remarkable reversals imaginable. Here is a story that demonstrates the utter darkness of human violence, of intolerance, or rejection and betrayal. And yet it provides the most glorious truth we could ever hope to receive. Here is a moment of death that proves the possibility of eternal life — of grace from the utter wasteland of despair. It is truly, to paraphrase Hollywood, the great story ever told.
What I appreciated from the homily was how it found a way to connect us to that transcendent moment through the ordinariness of our every day. And by this I don’t mean that our lives are not sincerely challenged, some, of course, more than others. And here I think especially of our beleaguered brothers and sisters in Ukraine at this tragic time. But rather that even from the depths of the darkest despair, the Lenten journey leads us towards hope — renewal — rescue. Certainly, it is a reminder to take the time to rethink and reassess, to change our point of view.
Pope Benedict XVI, during an Angelus address in 2013, spoke of Lent as a time that ‘always involves a battle, a spiritual battle,’ and as an invitation for us to reject false temptations that ‘undermine the conscience, disguised and proposed as affordable, effective and even good.’ The Church, Pope Benedict explained, uses Lent to call all of us ‘to be renewed in the spirit, to reorient closely to God.’
Pope Francis, for his part, in one of his Ash Wednesday homilies, invites us to slow down. ‘Lent is the time to rediscover the direction of life. Because in life’s journey, as in every journey, what really matters is not to lose sight of the goal.’ It is a cliché widely shared that we should focus on the journey, not the destination — and surely here we are invited to rethink that adage. The destination is pivotal. But there is no way to achieve it without falling … and more importantly, getting back up.
It may be true to say that part of the Lenten process is a metaphor. To surrender our consumption of coffee or wine is really not a hardship, and certainly not of the magnitude that this abstinence is meant to celebrate. Rather, we understand that it is a symbolic deprivation, one that is challenging perhaps but hardly fatal. Yet it reminds us, in the doing, of what is at stake and of how we got here. It reminds us of the very real and deep suffering our brothers and sisters around the globe encounter daily, including in our beleaguered Ukraine today. And it reminds us never to take the gifts — the freedoms — we have for granted.
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers