June 15, 2024
News Nigeria

Theology, Liturgy and Spirituality of LENT

Rev. Fr. Paul K. OREDIPE

Introduction
Jonathan and Johnson were good friends. Few years ago, on Ash Wednesday, Johnson went to the Church but Jonathan forgot the announcement on the previous Sunday. When they met in the evening, Johnson was still having the ashes on his forehead. Jonathan saw this and decided to help his friend, Johnson, to clean the stain on his forehead. As he cleaned off the ashes, Johnson became so furious and started shouting: ‘you have spoiled my lent, you have destroyed my lent, oh what is this now? You have broken my lent’. This led to a long quarrel that was not even settled until the following Christmas feast of that year.

Yes the ashes. We began this season of Lent on Ash Wednesday with the blessing and distribution of the ashes. As the priest put the ashes on us he said either of these: ‘turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel’ or ‘remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return’. With that ceremony we began a period of forty days specially dedicated to renewing our journey of conversion, to grow in faith, hope and love, enter more fully into the covenant willed by God and experience a season of grace and reconciliation.

The word Lent emanated from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘lenctern’, which means to lengthen and refers specifically to the lengthening of days in the springtime. It should be noted that Anglo Saxon is the language used by the inhabitants of Northern Germany who later conquered a part of England and settled there. Today we see Lent as the forty days interval between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday; a period when we are called to prepare ourselves through prayer and fasting in anticipation of the season of Easter. “Lent is the great paschal mystery of the Church.”

The Extent of the Season of Lent
The Forty days of Lent constitute the first part of the whole paschal cycle that reaches from Ash Wednesday through Triduum until Pentecost Sunday. Seen in its relationship to the Easter celebrations, Lent serves as a preparation for the Easter mysteries. Lent itself begins on Ash Wednesday with the proclamation from the prophet Joel, “Proclaim a fast…”. It ends at the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, the start of Triduum. Lent actually includes six Sundays. Since the revision of the liturgical calendar in 1969, the sixth Sunday of Lent has been called Passion (Palm) Sunday. This sixth Sunday begins what has been known traditionally as Holy Week, whose purpose is to remember “Christ’s passion, beginning with his Messianic entrance into Jerusalem.” [General Norms for the Liturgical Year and Calendar, 31] So, the last several days of Lent serve as a sort of bridge to Triduum.

The Origin of Lent
From the early history of the Church, it was seen that for about three hundred years after Christ had resurrected, such practice was not done. The faithful were only to fast for two days prior to Easter Sunday. The sacrament of Baptism, being a process of dying to sin and rising to new life in Christ, Easter time was the ideal time for receiving it. In the earliest centuries, the duration of Lent varied from place to place; here one day; there, two days; elsewhere, forty hours. And the severity of the fast has fluctuated wildly – as it has even in the last hundred years. The forty days preparation was promulgated during the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325. It was not until the end of the 4th century that a duration of forty days became universal. Thus by the fourth century, this practice was carried out by the whole Church. In the West, since every Sunday was reckoned a little Easter, there was in fact only thirty-six penitential days. To bring the days of actual penance up to forty, the western Church in the 7th century added four extra days, beginning with Ash Wednesday.

Fasting as a most ancient preparation for Easter: The celebration of Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday became the primary feast of the year at a fairly early date. Christians fasted to prepare for the vigil of Holy Saturday. They also had maintained a fast on Fridays for some time when these two fasts were joined together to help people prepare for the vigil. This became the foundation upon which was eventually built the forty days of fasting and baptismal preparation in the Western Christian Church: “… the 5th century historian, Socrates… describes a fast of three consecutive weeks before Easter… These three weeks of Lent, directly linked to the catechumenate in Rome, develop into a fast of forty days by the 4th century…”

A different kind of fasting in early Christianity: It is instructive that a different kind of fast develops among Christians in Alexandria, Egypt. A six day fast appears as a preparation for Easter as early as the 3rd century. But, it is not associated with the catechumen’s preparation; it is an ascetical fast in imitation of Jesus’ fast of forty days in the desert. This Egyptian monastic practice influenced Celtic monks and came to provide a more penitential focus for this ‘season’ as adult baptisms waned in the 6th century. Infant baptism was on the rise in this era because of fewer adults to baptize and the impact of the doctrine of original sin: “In the theological space created by the diminishing of the baptismal dimensions of Lent, the penitential aspects, which were also present from the earliest references to Lent, blossomed in full growth… [especially seen in] the rise of canonical penance and the order of penitents.”

Lent becomes more penitential: Ash Wednesday develops as its starting point: Ash Wednesday was established as the start of the Lenten fast by the 7th century. Due to the fact that Rome had had the practice of fasting from Monday through Saturday by the 6th century, the addition of those several days before the First Sunday of Lent created a forty day period of fasting before Triduum. The Ash Wednesday practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of the faithful originated in Spain and Gaul (6th to 9th century France). These older liturgical centers connected the distribution of ashes to entrance into the order of penitents. “Although not at first related to the season of Lent, the custom gained popularity as many of the penitential practices once reserved for serious public sinners became standard for all the faithful. It was not until 1091, when Pope Urban II ordered the imposition of ashes on the heads of all the faithful, that the reception of ashes became mandatory and the Wednesday… became known as Ash Wednesday.” This shows that, by the 11th century, the focus of Lent had become primarily focused on penance, while the notion of baptismal preparation of catechumens eroded.

Palm Sunday receives more emphasis: The sixth Sunday of Lent retained its focus and title, “Passion Sunday,” into the medieval period in the city of Rome. However, the commemoration of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem began to take on a growing importance outside the Eternal City. Beginning at least in the 4th century Jerusalem, the procession of the people with palms grows in popularity (even though this practice may have originated elsewhere). The composition of the glorious hymn, All Glory, Laud, and Honor (Theodulph of Orleans, 8th century) witnesses to the existence of such processions in medieval cities and towns.

Contemporary Lenten Practice: The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (1963) helped restore the baptismal focus to Lent: “The two elements which are especially characteristic of Lent — the recalling of baptism or the preparation for it, and penance — should be given greater emphasis in the liturgy and in liturgical catechesis. It is by means of them that the Church prepares the faithful for the celebration of Easter.” The bishops of Vatican II called for a retrieval of the 4th to 6th century practices that comprised Christian initiation. Years of research and consultation bore fruit in the publication of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults in 1988. Lent now coincides with the final preparation of the catechumens for Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist at the Easter Vigil. This period is called the “Period of Purification and Enlightenment.” It follows immediately upon the Rite of Election on the First Sunday of Lent and draws both the Elect and the faithful into a time of deepening conversion.

The fixing of the number forty has a lot of Biblical precedents. For example, Moses was on the mountain for forty days (Exodus 24:18); Israel wondered in the wilderness for forty years; Elijah walked for forty days to come to Horeb, the mountain of God (1 Kings 19:8) – to name but a few of many. In the New Testament we read of Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness for forty days (Matthew 4:2); and the days between the Lord’s Ascension and the day of Pentecost are numbered forty. However, it is not the duration of these days or years which is of significance; the important thing is what was consequent on them. After forty days Moses was given the Ten Commandments; on arrival at Horeb, Elijah had a deep personal experience of God. After forty days of prayer and fasting, Jesus entered into combat with the adversary; after ‘persevering in prayer’ for forty days, the infant Church was anointed with the Holy Spirit.

These forty days or years were simply preliminaries – necessary, rigorous periods of preparation for some climatic event. This is important to an understanding of the nature of Lent. Just as none of those periods of days or years in either Testament was an end in itself, so neither is Lent nor the most scrupulous observance of Lent an end in itself. Lent is intelligible and necessary only in the light of its climax, Easter. Without Easter there would be no Lent nor would there be need of Lent. The beginning is in ashes; the end is the paschal fire. The discipline of lent is a preparatory stage to enter as fully as possible, in mind and heart, into the Paschal Mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus and of our own in union with him. All our works of Prayer, Fasting and Alms-giving should bear related relevance to this call to repentance, renewal and conversion.

Why do we need Lent?
“The Lenten season has a double character, namely to prepare both catechumens and faithful to celebrate the paschal mystery. The catechumens, both with the rite of election and scrutinies, and by catechesis, are prepared for the celebration of the sacraments of Christian initiation, the faithful, ever more attentive to the word of God and prayer, prepare themselves by penance for the renewal of their baptismal promises.” (Cf. Ceremoniale episcoporum, n. 249)

Lent, as we know, is a time when we are called to repentance and conversion. It is a time of purification. We need to be purified before we can celebrate the feast of the resurrection. We need to die, as it were, to rise with Christ. Lent makes us become aware of our sins and selfishness and this leads us to self denial. St. Leo said, concerning Lent: “let the faithful, therefore examine their minds and subject the inmost thoughts of their hearts to a true scrutiny. If they find stored within their consciences anything of the fruits of charity, let them not doubt that God dwells in them; and in such order that they may be more and more ready to receive such a guest; let them abound still more in works of unfailing compassion. For if God is love, charity must have no limits because God cannot be confined within any bounds.”

Thus the purpose of Lent is to join ourselves with the Church as she prepares for the great events of salvation. Each year, in this season, the Church urges each Christian to take the work of sanctification very seriously. Your main duty in this holy season is to respond to the urgent summon to repentance: “Behold now is the acceptable time: behold no is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2). Do not allow the marking of ashes on your fore-head lose its vital spiritual significance. The profound truth you should draw from the symbol of ashes used to make a cross on your forehead is the inescapability of death. “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19) or commitment to Jesus: “Repent and believe in the good news.”

(Mk. 1:15). The Gospel tells us that:

– It is time to turn towards God

– God’s kingdom is at hand.

– We have to repent and make good our Covenant with God.

– We believe and live the Gospel in our everyday life.

The Lenten season reminds us to take our Christian commitment seriously and resolve to begin anew. The message of Lent should not consist in mere works of sacrifice but rather in following the call of God in faith, in the light of His own Word.

Liturgy in Lent
During Lent proper Masses for each day is observed. This is to further show another dimension of Lent which is ‘Unity’. The faithful gather together to celebrate the Eucharist. This tradition was to further stress on the need for special prayers. While the liturgy of Lent constantly places before us the necessity of a change of heart, of prayer, fasting and almsgiving it also constantly turns our attention to Baptism. For Baptism is our first definitive sacramental entering into the Paschal Mystery. Other themes are also predominant in the texts used during this season: Redemption, the Passion of Jesus, Sin and Sorrow for sins committed, the need for a turning away from sin and back to a God who is ready to forgive. According to the Second Vatican Council:

“The Lenten season has a two-fold character: 1) it recalls Baptism or prepares for it; 2) it stresses a penitential spirit. By these means especially, Lent readies the faithful for celebrating the Paschal Mystery after a period of closer attention to the Word of God and more ardent prayer. In the Liturgy itself and in Liturgy-centred instructions, these baptismal and penitential themes should be more pronounced.”

(Second Vatican Council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, December 4, 1963, no 109.)

Lent – A call to Conversion
In order to rise triumphantly with Christ, Lent draws our attention to conversion. We must first say No to sin before we can say Yes to God. “Sin” is saying No to God.

Sin originated from the sin committed by our first parents: Adam and Eve, they ate the forbidden fruit, the consequence was that they were driven out of the Garden of Eden. But God did not leave them. He continued to enter into relationship with the descendants of Adam and Eve. First was Noah then Abraham, whom he promised to make into a great nation and through whom the redeemer was to be born.

After the sin of Adam and Eve, God gave mankind the gift of freedom to choose between doing good or bad. But this freedom, when it is misused, leads to sin. Freedom, as we know, is that which perfects the human being that is, it makes Me what I should be – “My real self”. But we have come to see it as a license to sin. Sin is not necessary to live a full human existence. Sin is going contrary to what should be, sin enslaves the human being, it is a living barrier to the loving intimacy that man shares with God. It is important to know that even in our seemingly hopeless state of sin, God offers us an avenue for conversion. He sent His Son into the world to preach repentance and to show us that He never meant that man should wallow in sin. Christ preached the following:-

1. Forgiveness of sins

2. Union with God through baptism

3. The infinite love of God as displayed in his dying for us on the cross.

Sin is a lack of life. God is all life. If sin is an absence of life and God is life, then there is no sin in God. We must try to recognise that gift of life which God offers us each day of life. We must endeavour to turn to God.

When we sin, we begin to lose confidence in ourselves and others. In the heart that sin, hatred abound. We can no longer love because we are not conscious of the father’s love for us. The journey through life becomes a heavy burden, our very existence becomes meaningless.

Conversion is a turning away from sin and turning towards God. This conversion is taking place in our lives every day. It cannot be fully achieved one day. The interior disposition of the penitent is an integral part in the process of conversion. Prophet Micah says:

“What shall I bring to the Lord, the God of heaven, when I come to worship Him? Shall I bring the best . . . He, the Lord has told you what is good. What he requires of us is this: to do what is just, to show constant love, and to live in humble fellowship with our God.” (Micah 6:8)

So let us then adhere to the above message, let our fast not make us less disposed to be of use to our neighbour but a means of purging ourselves of our iniquities.

Jesus, during his ministry, made known to the people of his time the need to depend solely on God for everything; for example in the Gospel of Luke 5:32, it says: “Those who are healthy have no need for a doctor but those who are ill have. I did not come to invite the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Since sin draws us away from God and also makes us spiritually sick, we are in need of a physician and Christ has offered us this assurance that he alone can heal us. We cannot be converted without the aid of Christ who is our spiritual physician.

In Luke 15:11 – 32, we see the story of “the prodigal son”. The boy, having been given his share of his father’s property, went out and led a reckless life. It later happened that he had nothing left to keep him, so he decided to go back home to his father. His father, seeing him, was filled with joy. He orders a feast to celebrate the son’s arrival. This is how it is with God and man; even when we fall into the abyss of sin and decide to pretend that He is not there, He waits with eager longing for us to come back to him.

Ways in which we observe the season of Lent *-

Prayer, Fasting and Alms-giving*

Prayer :
Prayer is a loving and living dialogue with God. It is being with God and allowing God to be with us in an intimate manner. It is often described as the raising up of our minds and heart to God. Although we pray at all times, we are inclined to intensify our prayer during this Lenten season.

The act of praying has been in existence since man was driven out of the garden of Eden. In the book of Exodus, we find Moses praying on behalf of the Israelites that God should relent from his anger and not punish the sons of Israel. Moses is sometimes seen praying in the Tent of the Lord’s presence.

When we pray, we surrender to God’s plan for us; we make His will ours. When we pray, let it be that which is motivated by faith. We do not pray to get all that we want. Prayer is not only a means of getting what we want. It is much more getting to know, love and carry out the will of God. “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Prayer is of great necessity for our journey through conversion. If we do not commune with God, we cannot establish a relationship with Him. We will not experience His presence in our life and above all, we will not see Him as He wants to welcome us home as it were, since when we sin, we become like one who has left home, the father’s home.

When we pray, let us try to pray for others that they too may come to find the need of coming close to God. Prayer for oneself without regard for others would not be praying rightly. Such is a self-centred kind of prayer.

In praying we can also make use of the Psalms. They are hymns and prayers of the people of the Old Testament. Their experiences and feelings represent those of the whole humanity; they have universal appeal and content. We have psalms of praise, of cries for help, for deliverance, for salvation. We have prayers both personal and national. Jesus himself prayed the psalms all through his life, so the New Testament quotes them and they now have become our prayers. Jesus is the fulfilment of all the hopes of the psalms because Jesus is the revelation of God in the flesh. Jesus dies with a quotation from Psalm 22:1 “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me”. In the third chapter of the Letter to the Colossians v.16 we are instructed: “sing psalms, hymns and sacred songs; sing to God with thanksgiving in your hearts”. We can point out another example, Psalm 139:4 and 7 says:

“Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know the whole of it . . . Where can I go from your Spirit? From your presence where can I flee?”.

The above Psalm is that of total surrender to an Omniscient God, who knows and sees all that we do. He knows our innermost thoughts even before we utter them. The divine presence of God in our lives is highly stressed here. God is in pursuit of man. Like a hunting dog, He is ever alert and we cannot escape Him.

As it was the custom of Rabbis to plan out distinctive prayer pattern for their disciples, the disciples of Jesus requested for one:

“Lord teach us how to pray, just as John taught his disciples to pray.” He said to them, “Say this when you pray:- “Father, may your name be held holy, your kingdom come, give us each day our daily bread and forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive each one who is in debt to us and do not put us to the test.” Lk. 11:1 – 4.

Jesus, in the above prayer portrays God as a loving Father, whom we must share both our happy and sad moments with, a father ready to forgive and one shielding His children from evil. Jesus does not say that we should only pray in the above words, but he is giving us a pattern and that pattern is that of adoration and praise, contrition, thanksgiving and petition. We need to first acknowledge God’s greatness, be sorry for our sins and offences, thank him for all He has been doing for us and then make our petitions.

Most of us feel that we have not prayed well enough but St. Paul in Gal 5:6 bids us to be rest assured when he says “God has sent into our hearts the spirit of His son who cries Abba, Father.” Also in the Letter to the Romans 8:26 “The Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” It is the spirit who prays in us. So it is not ourselves who are praying but the spirit of Jesus. This makes prayer easy for us.

Among the virtues needed for prayer are the following:

– Faith in the existence and presence of God. “Now it is impossible to please God without faith, since anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and rewards those who seek him.” Heb. 11:6. “Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you receive it and you will.” Mk. 11:24 Cf. Jas. 1:6 – 8.

– Humility “if my people who bear my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my presence and turn from their wicked ways; then I will listen from heaven and forgive their sins and restore their country.” 2 Chro. 7:14. “God opposes the proud but accords his favour to the humble.” Jas 4:6.

– Persistence See the story of the importunate friend in Lk. 11:5 – 13. and the parable of the Unscrupulous judge and the importunate widow in Lk. 18: 1 – 8.

Asking, seeking, and knocking – all suggest perseverance. We ask for the grace we need to lead lives pleasing to God; we seek the face of Jesus who is the light of the world; and we knock that we may go in and abide in God’s presence. William Mcgill tells us: “The value of persistent prayer is not that God will hear us, but that we will finally hear God.” A woman kept a list of special requests she made to God. She would place them in her Bible and periodically check them. She was surprised to discover how many of them were answered in ways totally different from what she expected. Think of the following:

I asked God for strength that I might achieve . . . . I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.

I asked for health, that I might do greater things . . . . . I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.

I asked for riches, that I might be happy . . . . .. I was given poverty, that I might be wise.

I asked for power, that I might have the praises of men . . .I was given weakness, that I feel the need of God.

I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life . . . . . I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.

I got nothing that I asked for, but everything I had hoped for.

Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered. I am among all men richly blessed.!

– Love : eliminate resentment, hostility and hatred toward any ‘human being’ Matt. 5: 23 – 24.

When we pray therefore during this Lenten season and at all times, let the emphasis be on God not ourselves. When we put forward our petitions, we must be ready to wait for God’s own time. Listening to God at prayer as He speaks within us is an integral part of prayer. We are more in tune with the divine when our whole being is alert to His gentle voice. We must pray fervently for as long as we live. Prayer makes us what we are meant and called to be. Prayer changes us into what God wills for us. Prayer makes us man.

DON’T PRAY
If you don’t want to change, then don’t pray . . .

For prayer is the start of a motion, a continuing transformation and upheaval.

Things are never the same as before and there is no going back.

Change means letting go, dying and rising.

It is the continual paradox of death and resurrection which is experienced in prayer.

For prayer is a longing for change.

It is asking that we become what God dreams us to be.

If you don’t want to change, then don’t pray.

Fasting :
In the gospel we read: “When you fast, do not put on a sad face, as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces, so that all men may see that they are fasting. This is the truth I tell you; they are paid in full. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that to man you may not look as if you are fasting, but to your Father who is in secret, and your father who sees in secret will give you your reward in full. Matt 6: 16 – 18.

The above quotation calls us to a kind of fast that humbles us before God. It condemns that which is a show-off before men. God can only bless us when we fast in secret. Men look at faces but God sees your heart.

Fasting literally means going without food or with less. However, real, authentic and effective fasting is much more than simply a reduction in our food, but the elimination of our evil habits. When we are able to do this we show forth God’s supremacy over material things. We do not make a demand of God when we fast. We allow Him to decide whether or not He will accept our petitions.

Fasting was the means through which the people of God made atonement for their sins. In the book of 1 Sam. 6:7, Samuel makes the people to fast because they had worshipped a false god “so they all gathered at Mizpah. They drew some water and poured it out as an offering to the Lord and fasted that whole day. They said, “we have sinned against the Lord.”

Through fasting the people of Israel asked for favours from God. For example, when Nebuchadnezzer threatened to punish all the nations that were against him, the people of Israel sought Yahweh through fasting. “The men of Israel prayed earnestly to God and fasted. They put on sack cloth . . . for many days. The people continued their fast in front of the Temple . . . They put on ashes on their Turbans and cried in prayer to the Lord . . .” Judith 4: 9ff.

Sometimes we become unnecessarily proud, when we fast, we feel better than others who cannot fast. This should not be, because then the fast loses it’s value. Fasting disposes the heart to the graces of God, fasting brings about changes in our lives, it brings us closer to God and it makes us aware of His love for us. If all these are lacking, then we need to examine ourselves to see our real motive of fasting. Fasting must be joyful affair, we need not go about with gloomy faces because we are fasting, cheerfulness in the midst of suffering is what God values most.

The Church approves of fasting done in proper spirit of repentance. In the Apostolic Constitution of Penance, we are told that: “The Church insists first of all that the virtue of penitence be exercised in persevering faithfulness to the duties of one’s state in life, in the acceptance of the difficulties arising from one’s work and from human co-existence, in a patient bearing of the trials of earthly life and of the utter insecurity which pervades it … In the first place Holy Mother Church although has always observed in a special way abstinence from meat and fasting, nevertheless wants to indicate in the traditional set of ‘prayer, fasting and charity’ the fundamental means of complying with the divine precepts of penitence.

In order to bring about a universality in fasting, the Church decreed that abstinence is to be observed every Friday, while abstinence and fast are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Fridays. Voluntary fasting is also recommended by the Church. We should note that in abstaining from things, they must not be things we do not like, for in so doing, we are not giving up anything.

Finally, fasting during Lent makes us light enough and disposed to the grace of God. If we have the strength to do it and do it as it should be done, we can be sure of God’s graces in our lives. It is meaningful only if it is done in the proper spirit of repentance for sin and a desire to renew one’s life. Its success does not lie in how long we fast in a day or how many days of fast we are able to keep but how we grow in our relationship with God and also with our neighbour. This is the greatest fasting; keep all sins away and do good, worship the Lord sincerely, walking in his ways, loving Him and serving Him with heart and soul (Deut. 10:12). This includes being merciful, helpful, sympathetic and sharing (Is. 58:6 – 11). All who have completed their 14th birthday are bound by the law of abstinence which forbids flesh meat. All who have completed their 18th birthday are bound by the law of fasting until they begin their 60th year. The law of fasting allows only one full meal on the fast day. The taking of water and other light, non-alcoholic beverages, such as tea, fruit juice does not break one’s fast.

Lastly let us remember the words of the Lord:

“Look you do business on your fast days, you oppress all your workmen; look, you quarrel and squabble when you fast and strike the poor man with your fist. Fasting like yours today will never make your voice heard on high. Is that the sort of fast that pleases me, a truly penitential day for men? Hanging your head like a reed, lying down on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call fasting, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the sort of fast that pleases me – it is the Lord who speaks – to break unjust fetters and undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke, to share your bread with the hungry, and shelter the homeless poor, to clothe the man you see to be naked and not turn from your own kin? Then will your light shine like the dawn and your wound be quickly healed over. Your integrity will go before you and the glory of the Lord behind you. Cry, and the Lord will answer; call, and he will say, “I am here.” (Is. 58: 3 – 9)

Alms-giving :
Our word ‘alms-giving’ comes from the Greek language and it means God’s mercy. Alms-giving is primarily an imitation of the actions of God who has first given proof of his mercy towards man. So when we give alms we imitate God who first gave ‘alms’ or ‘mercy’ to us.

The idea of giving alms is as old as mankind. In the Old Testament we find not just the idea of alms-giving but it is also found in the law itself. In Leviticus 19 we read:

“When you harvest your fields do not cut the grain at the edges of the fields, and do not go back to cut the heads of grains that were left. Do not go back through your vineyard to gather the grapes that were missed or to pick up the grapes that have fallen, leave then for poor people and foreigners. I am the Lord your God.”

When God has blessed us with plenty, it is our duty to give to others who do not have. No one should have a monopoly of all the gifts of the earth. It should be shared. In the words of the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II in one of his past Messages for Lent (1992) titled ‘Called to share the table of Creation’:

“Creation belongs to everyone. … However it is sad to see … the earth with all its goods … is unfortunately in many ways still in the hands of a few minorities. Wonderful are the goods of the earth … all human beings need a share in those goods in order to reach their fullness. It is thus all the more painful to note how many millions of people are excluded from the table of creation. … For those people and for all the dispossessed of the world … we must work hard and without delay so that they can occupy their proper place at the table of creation. … a clear awareness that it is the Creator’s will to place the goods of creation at the service of everyone should inspire work for the genuine and complete development of the person and of all people.”

We must not allow greed to be our guiding principle through life. When we give from what we have, we inherit a blessing; but when we try to store them up, we will die one day and nothing of what we gave stored will go with us to the judgement throne where we shall hear those words: “I was hungry … I was thirsty … I was a stranger … I was naked … sick … in prison” (Matt. 25: 34ff)

Almsgiving made in love shows a heart that is of God because God does not give us his grace grudgingly. If we give generously, we also receive forgiveness and righteousness and more of what we have will be added unto us.

Almsgiving is a sacrifice which does not go unrewarded. “Returning a kindness is like a grain of offering; giving to the poor is like a thanksgiving offering.” (Sir. 35:2)

Here almsgiving is seen as giving to God through the poor people around us. Almsgiving is a virtuous act, the more we do it, the more it becomes a habit.

In the New Testament, in Matthew 6: 2 – 4 it says “So when you give alms, do not sound the trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the Synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. This is the truth I tell you – they have received their reward. But when you give alms, your left hand must not know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms giving may be in secret and your father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Here we are called to give without showing off, so that our sacrifice may be acceptable to God. In order to do this, we must always see those we are giving alms to as people not just objects.

Apart from giving material things to the poor, their rights as citizens and children of God must be upheld, justice, peace and love must be present in our lives. The season of Lent draws us to this awareness, our duty is to respond, make amendments and be truly converted so that we may be able to celebrate the joys of Easter.

Above all, this giving also involves the offering of our time. Time constitutes one of the major treasures with which we have been blessed. We may find it easy to give out our money, food or clothing, but how much of our time are we ready to sacrifice. “I have no time” is a popular expression on our lips.

Jesus our Lord and Saviour gave up everything to redeem us. He wants us to imitate him. Ordinary almsgiving is not enough for a true and real disciple of Jesus. We have to give alms only with reference to God and to Jesus and in imitation of God who gives the rich their riches also. Everything comes from God and everything must go back to Him. So our almsgiving becomes a sharing in what God has freely and fully given to us.

Conclusion
The Church, in the Liturgy of Lent, constantly calls on us and places before us the necessity and value of Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving. The Sermon of St. Peter Chrysologus in the Office of Reading during Lent, Week 3, Tuesday, explains further:

“What prayer knocks for upon a door, fasting successfully begs and mercy receives. […] these three are a unit. They give life to one another. For, fasting is the soul of prayer; and mercy is the life of fasting. […] If a man has only one of them, or if he does not have them all simultaneously, he has nothing. Therefore, he who prays should also fast; and he who fasts should also be merciful.”

What, therefore, does it mean to celebrate the mystery of the cross ‘in spirit and in truth’? When applied to what we are celebrating, what is the significance of the ancient maxim: ‘Acknowledge what you are doing, imitate what you are celebrating’. It signifies that you should implement within yourself what you represent externally; put into practice what you are commemorating in the liturgy.

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