No matter how many weeks there are after the Christmas season ends, Lent always seems to come quickly. If we are unprepared, it can feel like Lent bursts onto the scene in an almost disruptive way. But if we have prepared even a little bit, the season has much richness to offer. In truth, there is a sort of rhythm into which we have all been immersed from the beginning of our Christian lives, no matter if we entered into the Body of Christ through baptism as infants or through the RCIA as adults. And as all seasons offer their opportunities for new growth, Lent is not something we should dread due to a sense of ‘deprivations’ to come, but it is a time to reassess our choices, behaviors, and relationships. I would even suggest that it is a time for gratitude because it is an invitation to review the gifts we have received. In fact, the Lenten season calls us to be thankful for what we have, to encourage us to share it with others (almsgiving), to atone for any selfishness (repentance and self-denial), and to grow in relationship to God in a deeper way (prayer). In short, Lent is a time to appreciate all the good gifts we have received from God, particularly the gift of salvation, to make sure we are using them properly, and to respond with gratitude.
Praying with the Gospel for the Sunday before Lent is excellent preparation for the forty days to come soon after. (Mark 1:40-45) In it, a leper approaches Jesus asking to be healed of his malady. Given that leprosy was thought to be highly contagious, and given that asking Jesus to touch him was tantamount to asking Jesus to make Himself ritually impure according to Mosaic Law, the leper is quite bold in his seemingly innocent request. He knows all of this, so it is more than bold; it is rather outrageous. But Jesus does reach out and touch him. In fact, Jesus is moved to His very core, saying, “Of course I want to! Be cured.” * Jesus then asks something of the healed man that is equally shocking: “See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed: that will be proof for them.” Of course, the man went off and publicized the entire thing such that the report even “went abroad.”
The boldness of the leper is the same attitude with which we should enter into Lent. He had the faith which empowered him to be unafraid to approach Jesus and to know that Jesus could and would heal him. He knew that Jesus would not refuse him because he recognized that Jesus was compassionate and merciful. We, too, know this of Jesus, and therefore we should not fear asking Him to heal that which ails us. Rather, we must trust that we have been heard and that Jesus says to us as to the man, “Of course I want to,” even if we do not receive the gift as we thought it would appear. We can have the boldness to be as daring as the leper in trusting that Jesus wants us to be whole. However, like him, there are things we need to do in order to cooperate with grace: just as Jesus instructed the man to do what was prescribed by Law, we need to respond through cultivating an active relationship with Jesus through prayer, repentance, and living the gospel message. The process of entering into Lent offers us the opportunity to do this and also enables us to let go of whatever sinful behaviors we cling to that hold us back from our spiritual growth.
Jesus told the healed leper not to say anything, which seems rather odd given that it is an unrealistic expectation to think that one who was known to have leprosy would hide his healing or excitement at being set free from exile. So why did He ask this? Perhaps it was because Jesus knew that because His deed would inevitably become known, the authorities would disapprove of anything He had said which could be perceived as not following the Law: it would be protection for them both if Jesus instructed the man to do what the Law required. But certainly Jesus knew the man would not be able to contain his excitement. An encounter with Jesus cannot remain hidden, the change will become visible. It is simply not possible to approach Jesus in prayer with true faith and then mute our reaction once we have an encounter with Him. If we approach in faith, we leave with joy that spills over in gratitude. No matter what Jesus' reason for the unusual request, we learn from this encounter that even in humbling oneself before God, we must be bold in our faith. Therefore, the season of Lent should be something we embrace rather than a time we face with reluctance. It is only in the encounter with Jesus, merciful and loving, that we appreciate the magnitude of the gifts He gives, and then are able to come away with joy and gratitude.
The season of Lent is an invitation to approach Jesus with trust that He will hear our prayer for healing and wholeness. We are invited to assess what we need by doing an examination of conscience and discerning what area or areas we want to work on for our spiritual growth. It is an opportunity to be cleansed of our sinful tendencies as we spend time in repentance, and perhaps be set free from whatever fear instills a reluctance to approach Jesus as we ought. If we have been lazy in our prayer life or in attending Mass, this is a time to change those behaviors and to ask for whatever graces are needed to do so. We are invited to action, just as the leper-made-whole did in the gospel. We will have ample opportunities to spread the gospel by works of mercy and acts of sharing of our time, talent, and treasure. And in doing all of this, we are invited to look more closely at what we have and how we use it. Hopefully, the result of this is a deeper sense of gratitude for the many gifts we have been given.
My recent travels provided an almost overwhelming sense of the beauty and grandeur of God’s creation. Seeing the natural beauty of the land, and especially the graciousness of the people where we traveled, gave me a deeper realization that even with its imperfections, the world is a truly magnificent place. But a sense of gratitude for God’s great gifts is what has lingered. A prayer began to circulate through my mind and heart, a variation of a traditional prayer called the Jesus Prayer. (The Jesus Prayer is a repetitive prayer which can be used as a doorway to meditation and contemplation either through slow, methodical recitation aligned with one’s breathing or can be continually repeated as a way to keep the name of Christ on one’s lips. It is: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”) What came to me is based on the traditional prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, for your good gifts, I am grateful.” Upon reflection, it seems that centering upon gratitude when entering into Lent might help us grow in awareness of the great gifts we have been given and on our usage of them. Any prayer such as this one can call us to reflect upon the gifts we have received, to assess our behaviors, and can inspire joy within our hearts as we recognize just how great the love God has poured out upon the world truly is.
During Lent we often look to ‘give something up’ as a true sacrifice of repentance and a reminder of the suffering of Jesus. We do this because renunciation is meant to give us insight into the greatness of His gifts and should ultimately move us to new insight and gratitude. If we have decided to go the route of adding something during the 40 days, such as more prayer, a more positive response to people and situations, almsgiving, volunteering to help others in some way, or whatever moves us closer to God, it can also lead to the same sense of gratitude for all that we have been given, both materially and spiritually. In reality, we have been given an unending opportunity for forgiveness of our sins, a love which has no height, breadth, or depth that can be measured or limited, and the promise of life eternal with God. Lent is a time to look deeply within our hearts to assess what keeps us from enjoying these gifts, to ask God’s help in overcoming whatever holds us captive, and therefore to grow in appreciation for the great gift of life in God which we have been given. Like the healed leper we need to be bold in our courage to come forward, knowing that we will come away more whole. And in response we can continue to say: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, for your good gifts, I am grateful.”
May we enter into Lent with a sense of joy for the opportunity to grow closer to Jesus! May we be inspired to seek Jesus through our acts of prayer, penance, almsgiving, and abstinence! May we discover anew a sense of wonder and awe at the good gifts we have been given and may we be moved to joy and gratitude in response! May we be like the healed leper, unafraid to approach Jesus and bold enough to proclaim His goodness through our words and deeds! And may we learn from the compassion and mercy we receive from Jesus to offer compassion and mercy to those we encounter on the journey! Let us meet in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* This translation comes from the New Jerusalem Bible. While it is not the one used for our Sunday readings, I have always loved it because it captures the spirit of Jesus’ love for the leper. It depicts the immense love Jesus has for all men and women and also His desire that we all be whole.
Note: Next post February 26
1. This is a photo I took of a stained glass window inside St. Patrick's in Auckland, New Zealand. I chose to use it here because it seems like these disciples are looking upward to Heaven for guidance. At the beginning of Lent we are often beginning the same process of discerning what help we might need and what goals we might be hoping to attain in the season of Lent.
2. I chose this close-up of Jesus painted by Fra Angelico because the expression on Jesus' face is what I envision when I reflect upon the gospel passage of the bold leper. As Jesus says "Of course I want to!" to him I imagine a look of compassion and love such as this one.
3. I took this photo on a hilltop while we were driving outside of Auckland. NZ. The fronds on this tree had a bright yellow hue and though I had seen a number of these amazing hemlock type trees, this one really caught my eye. I chose to use it here because the little tree seems to have boldness in "approaching" the larger tree, such as that of the leper who boldly approached Jesus, the Lord.
4. I took this photo in Kaikoura, NZ (on the eastern shore of the South Island) after a short rain shower. This photo has not been tampered with, and in fact the photo does not totally capture the luminescence of the rainbow as seen with the naked eye! I had never before seen a rainbow that stood nearly straight up, nor have I seen one glow as this one does. It was an amazing sight. I wanted to use it here because it made me think of the 'glow' which comes from the joy of the new life we might receive after an encounter with Jesus in our prayer.
5. This icon is called Christ All Merciful by Fr. William Hart McNichols. It seemed appropriate to feature it here because Jesus is merciful not just to the healed leper, but also to each one of us. If you are interested in obtaining a copy, it can be found at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/christ-all-merciful-022-william-hart-mcnichols.html
6. The next three photos are mine. This one was taken on a glacial river near Glenorchy, NZ (South Island), just north of Queenstown. It was one of the many incredibly moving, beautiful places we visited. We were in a jet boat (at this point, stopped) when the photo was taken. I chose to use it here simply because it shows the beauty of creation.
7. My husband and I gathered these rocks from among many on a beach called Gemstone Beach on the coast just northwest of Invercargill, New Zealand. The different colored rocks are found all over the beach and there are said to be semiprecious gemstones among them. To us, they were all beautiful and so we made the little grouping in order to have a memory of the ones we found that were most appealing to us. So that others might enjoy God's handiwork, one does not take a stone away from this place, so we only took away our photo as a keepsake. I chose this photo because it reminded me that God gives so many wonderful gifts to us, varied and unique. These stones moved me to gratitude.
8. Finally, this shot was taken on the road to Glenorchy, mentioned above. The driver of the van we were in stopped for what he called the most spectacular view of the Aspiring Mountains. Yes, I took that photo, but then I turned the opposite direction and saw this wonderful vista. This is Lake Wakatipu, a huge lake at the south end of which is Queenstown. (We were headed north.) I chose to use it here simply because the view was so striking.
Heart Speaks to Heart