By DANIEL CONWAY
According to the calendar, Lent came early this year. Easter Sunday is April 4, which meant that Ash Wednesday had to be celebrated seven weeks earlier on Feb. 17. We had barely begun to observe Ordinary Time when we were invited to receive ashes and engage in the traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
In many ways it feels like we’ve been observing the season of Lent for a whole year now. A year ago, during Lent, our churches were closed and we were forced to observe what Newark Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin has called “The Great Eucharistic Fast.”
For the first time in living memory, in 2020, Lent and Easter were celebrated virtually, and although the joy of the Lord’s resurrection could not be totally suppressed, it was definitely muted somewhat as all of us struggled to deal with health crises, economic hardships, social unrest and political discord.
Now there appears to be light at the end of the long, dark tunnel the world entered a year ago at this time, but we’re certainly not ready to celebrate the end of the pandemic yet. Perhaps that’s why we need Lent 2021 to help us to deal with the uncertainty while we prepare for better days ahead.
Lent is supposed to be a time for serious spiritual renewal. This doesn’t mean that everything should be gloomy or joyless. On the contrary, if done properly, the traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and charitable giving can be undertaken in light-hearted, even carefree, ways that prepare us for the season of joy we are looking forward to in the weeks to come.
Authentic prayer invites us to “lift up our hearts to the Lord” and to unburden ourselves of all the worries and difficulties that we carry in our daily lives. Especially when we focus our prayers on gratitude for all God’s gifts, the blessings we receive are immeasurable.
In fact, when we pray for those who are seriously ill or out of work or suffering from the dehumanizing effects of violence or racism or sexual abuse, we have the opportunity to step outside of our own difficulties and unite ourselves with our sisters and brothers in need.
Fasting, too, can be an occasion for solidarity with those whose needs are much greater than ours. During the past year, all of us have had to do without things that we enjoy — family gatherings, travel, sports activities, cultural events and more. We sacrificed many good things for the benefit of others to curb the rapid spread of the COVID virus and protect the elderly and other vulnerable members of our society.
The fasting we are invited to do this Lent continues the practices instituted a year ago (such as wearing masks, social distancing and being zealous about sanitizing everything we touch) in the confident hope that the day will come when these activities will no longer be required.
Almsgiving, which is nothing more or less than being generous stewards of all God’s gifts, is needed now more than ever as individuals and families throughout our archdiocese struggle to survive the economic hardships that have resulted from the pandemic.
Now is not the time to focus exclusively on our own wants or needs. Now is the time to lend a helping hand to those who are most in need of our help.
The past year presented each of us with many opportunities to share our blessings with family, friends and even strangers. Lent 2021 invites us to continue being the generous, cheerful givers that God loves!
Sad to say, it’s unlikely that we will be fully restored to “normal” by April 4, but Easter is the season of hope, and if we have truly experienced the spiritual renewal of Lent, we can be confident that our hope will not be disappointed. Our prayer, fasting and charitable giving will help prepare the way for a new season of joy that — whenever it comes — can overcome whatever hardships or sorrows have come our way.
At first glance, Lent may seem redundant in a time of pandemic, but in fact it is more important than ever. The graces we receive from the spiritual and sacramental activities of this holy season are meant to strengthen us and to remind us that we don’t live exclusively for ourselves but for the sake of all our brothers and sisters in Christ.
May Lent 2021 be a special time of grace for all of us who long for the joy of Easter!