Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
So many aspects of our lives have been altered this past year. We’ve had to step back, think through our priorities, and reset basic patterns in our lives.
In a similar way, as we begin Lent, I’d like to step back and think about two basic priorities that can set the pattern of our Lent. The first is a Lent that is earnest. The second is a Lent that is well-targeted.
In his encyclical on hope, Pope Benedict XVI said: “the present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads towards a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey.” (“Spe Salvi,” 1)
The truth of that statement isn’t limited to the realm of religion — it can equally well describe the Cardinals’ approach to spring training! For a team in spring training, as for a Christian in Lent, the more convinced we are that the end is possible — whether it be a World Series Championship or a share in Christ’s Resurrection — and the more committed we are to that end, the more deeply we will engage the process of getting there. We’ve all seen players and teams who just “go through the motions” in spring training, as well as those who really work at it. Watching them tells us something about their commitment to the season ahead. Similarly, we’ve all had times when we just “went through the motions” in our faith, and times when we’ve been really engaged. Watching us tells the world something about our commitment to heaven.
One of the tasks of our day is a Christianity that is more robust in its hope, and more robust in the discipline that strives toward that hope. We expect a spring training that is “in earnest” from the Cardinals. We should expect no less from ourselves in Lent.
Of course, we can earnestly spend our energy in the wrong direction. So it’s also important that our Lent be well-targeted.
On the negative side, we see the need for this when people get tired of simply “giving up something” for Lent. The sense that it doesn’t go deep enough toward the transformation that we need saps the strength from it. Sometimes, sensing this disconnect, people simply give up on Lent. But that’s the wrong response. A better response is to step into a deeper Lent.
All week long, in various ways, God is asking a question of His people. It’s poignantly summarized in Isaiah’s ringing question: “Is this the manner of fasting I wish?”
King David articulated his repentance in Psalm 51 this way: “For you are not pleased with (external) sacrifices … My sacrifice is a contrite spirit.” Isaiah called for Israel’s repentance this way: “Rend your hearts, not your garments.” Jesus warned against fasting and praying “in order to be seen” and “to win the praise of others.” Each of them draws our attention to a sacrifice that’s not well targeted, and one that is.
So let’s step back and think. What would be a well-targeted Lent — one that cuts to our own deepest needs and society’s deepest needs for transformation?
Financial donors give money in a targeted way to where they think the most good can be done and needs to be done. We can target our “spiritual donations” in Lent the same way. If you had spiritual resources to give — and we all do, during Lent, by the disciplines we take on, both the things we give up and the things we do — then where would you want those resources to be spent? What do you think most needs restoring in the world, and what contribution can you make, in your own life, to that restoration?
Answering that question can produce an earnest, well-targeted Lent.