For as long as I can remember, Lent has always seemed like the most spiritual of all the liturgical seasons. Not that the Jesus of Christmas, Easter and Advent is any less bonafide and worthy of devotion, but he shares the spotlight with Hallmark, Mars Candy, and Williams Sonoma’s Hand-Buttered Very Madea Christmurs DVDs.
For some reason, no one has really broken into the Lenten market with, say, brand name sackcloths.
All for the best, I suppose.
But even more than the lack of commercialization, there’s the intensity of a Lenten fast coupled with some pretty vivid rituals like the Stations of the Cross and veneration of the cross. We focus intently and squarely on Christ, on his pain, both his physical suffering and his sorrow. We foster sympathy for the God we worship.
Years ago, when I was still in college, I was waiting to meet my roommate for lunch. He was a semester-abroad student from Austria who had come here with the help of a scholarship. We were joining Fr. Franz Schorp, a Marianist priest and philosophy teacher at the university, who had provided the money for the scholarship himself.
As I was waiting outside the priests’ home, Fr. Schorp snuck up beside me and started, “You know, people like to cultivate their piety (and at this point, he began imitating a trembling old lady): ‘Oh sweet Jesus on the cross, have mercy on me…’ – but what about the Jesus that you encounter when you smack your head on a tree!”
I’d met Fr. Schorp a few months before, and if it wasn’t for that first meeting, I would have figured that senility had slightly grabbed ahold of him. The earlier impression he gave was of a warm, reflective, relaxed German (though he wasn’t) man who had never stopped thinking critically. With a memory as sharp as a whip, he recalled, if I remember right, studying under then-Professor Karol Wojtyla, and stealing his unfortunately illegible exam notes. So instead, I wondered what he meant. Here’s what, years later, I’ve come up with:
Heather King, writer extraordinaire and speaker at the 2013 Catholic Women’s Conference, recently wrote two blog posts with excerpts from and reflections on Fr. Patrick McNulty’s book, I Live, Not I. The title comes from St. Paul’s proclamation,
I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me. (Galatians 2:19-20)
Fr. McNulty writes,
We must not ask, ‘What would Jesus do?’ but rather, ‘Jesus, you experienced something like this in your own life–for different reasons than mine–so what kind of union with You are You calling me to right now through my humanity? What are You trying to teach me about You and Your relationship with Your Father right now in and through my flesh?
What I usually do when I’m hurt is figure out exactly who is to blame and how, then what I should do about it. But Fr. McNulty says that our response comes later – after we’ve opened ourselves to and sought out the Sacred Heart of Christ, who shares in our condition.
Christ experienced a life like our own, and by virtue of our unity with him initiated at baptism, everything including suffering becomes a vehicle for knowing him, as well as his (and our) relationship with the Father. When we suffer, we can say, Where is the Spirit of God in this? Christ experienced this pain before… so how do I encounter him here? This is the road to a deeper unity with Christ: allowing him to draw us into his heart through our own pain, not to mention joys, thoughts, anxieties, affections…
Then we can offer our broken selves – with our longings, our shortcomings, our anxiety – to God, in union with Christ and with all people who suffer similarly. This not only cuts short our desire for self-pity, for vengeance, for being proven right; it opens us up to the life of God. Whatsoever you did to the least of my people, you did it to me - it opens us up to our brothers, sisters, neighbors, too.
To be honest, I’m not sure how this relates to getting smacked by a tree branch, except that like the tension created by fasting, unexpected hurts can jolt us awake. Fr. McNulty might add that our unity with Christ makes us capable of a higher mind about life, and a larger heart, and I think that’s what Fr. Schorp was getting at too.
So couple that Lenten fasting and prayer with the traditional charitable giving, and you’ve got the basic ingredients of a successful penitential season. This Lent, when we give up whatever we give up, may it enable us to more deeply know and love Christ and other people. And when we stoop to kiss the crucifix, may our prayer, fasting and almsgiving ignite a heightened awareness of our Lord, who opens his heart to us in suffering, and brings his love to us with the goodness of his own body and blood.