Lent is here! Among the Catholic Liturgical seasons (Ordinary time, Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter), Lent seems the least “popular” given its somber outlook and its inner meaning. For 40 days, the Church invites us it would seem to sacrifice, to give up something. The intriguing part of this season is displayed in what I have referred to as the fetishes of Lent.
The season itself kicks off with Ash Wednesday when Catholics are reminded of the need to give perspective to life through those words: Remember man that you are dust and unto dust you shall return. One cannot but wonder what is it about these ashes that many people want to “dirty” their foreheads with. I am sure some people who for one reason or the other cannot receive the ashes on Wednesday would advocate that it be given the day after. The number of people attracted to and by this Catholic tradition is exciting but also raises some questions. When ashes become more popular than Holy Communion or the reception of it then one must wonder what the alluring enticement of ashes are if they do not draw us to Christ?
Once we are reminded of the futility of this life through ashes, we are equally invited to penance which enables us to build intimacy with Christ through Holy Communion. Receiving ashes is a penitential practice which we must build upon throughout Lent especially with the sacrament of reconciliation paving the way for the reception of the Body and Blood of Christ.
During Lent, the Church invites us on the Via Dolorosa to walk the way of the Cross after the example of Christ. Praying the fourteen Stations of the Cross is a popular practice in St Anthony’s parish Njinikom like many Catholic parishes. As a kid, my maternal grandparents compelled me to come with them and I learnt how to say basic prayers in the vernacular and I have never forgotten these. I often found it intriguing that the Church would be full during the Stations of the Cross which preceded mass and immediately after the last station a good number of people left for their farms. It is interesting how people would choose the Stations of the cross over mass.
While I grew up knowing that it is critical to pray all 14 stations every day of Lent except Sundays, I have learnt over the last decade that these are “mere private devotions.” In some places in the U.S, it is one station every day over 14 days while in others all fourteen are prayed once a week. To some acquainted with daily stations, this is a scandal. Again, we must find a true place for these devotions in our lives and eschew the temptation to dramatize these for public display rather than real spiritual gain.
My best experience with praying the stations of the cross is what the Rector of the Spiritual Center helped us to do namely ask each of us to write out our personal meditation on these. May be, this Lent each of us could design our meditations on this devotion. Our daily lives as pilgrims is laced with judgments like Pilate’s, condemnations of others to death in speech and in deed, burdens unto others with our cross, slips and falls many times under the weight of the cross and the list is on. Our life story itself is a reflection of the Stations of the Cross and we could weave these into beautiful meditations.
Another popular day during Lent is Palm Sunday which kicks off Holy Week and celebrates the triumphant entry of Christ into Jerusalem. The blessing of palm branches symbolic of those waved to welcome Christ is an equally enticing event. Many people scramble to have these palm branches which they keep in their cars or at home. Some of us seem to ascribe some magical powers to these. It is often very interesting seeing people struggling to ensure that the holy water the priest sprinkles to bless the palm branches actually touches theirs or else it is not blessed. There is the great temptation to exaggerate the significance of these branches and so lose their real value. It is not surprising that the ashes are made from palm branches blessed on Palm Sunday.
Let us fast forward to Good Friday when again many people turn out for the Stations of the Cross. There is no denying it that this is one of the most important days of the year; but the story does not end there. Easter is the most important day of the year and the essence of the Christian message. The Cross is our only hope because beyond it there is the resurrection. Good Friday is the only day in the year when mass is not celebrated throughout the entire Catholic world. The plea here is that we do not misplace our spiritual priorities. This explains why many of us find it difficult to appreciate the many Good Fridays of our lives and move beyond to the Resurrection. As the English saying goes: No crown, no thorns.
On Ash Wednesday, I sent a text message to seven of my good friends, two priests, three Catholic colleagues and two very close friends. I asked them what they thought I should give up for Lent. The responses I got were so enlightening and I will share these at an appropriate moment. In a bid to deflate some of these, I heard myself saying it is not important what they want but rather what do I want to give up for Lent? On further meditation, I believed the right question I should be asking is what does God want me to give up for Lent? I am sure the answer is nothing. Rather God is asking me to do something this Lent.
Like many have said the danger during Lent is to reduce it to a slim cause a time when we give up what we do not like. Giving up meat for Lent in a country like Cameroon where meat is a delicacy is a worthwhile exercise but it would be more gratifying if booze is given up. But again, it is not just giving up food and drink for the time being – postponed consumption where we starve during Lent to glut the appetite and be drunk at Easter. What we give up is important but equally important is why we give up and what happens to what we have given up.
Lent is an invitation to love ourselves and our neighbors. Maybe our Lenten journey would be more meaningful if we rediscover the meaning of those beautiful words of St. Paul’s hymn of love: If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Cor.13:3)