Monday, February 27, 2017

Lent Beckons

Today we enter upon the keeping of Lent, coming round again as it does every year; and every year too I owe you a solemn exhortation. That was how Saint Augustine began his homily for the First Sunday of Lent (Sermon 205) in his African diocese of Hippo, 16 centuries ago. 

I once knew a priest who professed to be surprised that we still observed Lent, that it had somehow survived the post-conciliar period. (Actually, the Council explicitly endorsed Lent. Of course, it also endorsed all sorts of things - like Latin and Gregorian Chant - the the post-conciliar period breezily jettisoned anyway.) Lent's survival in the inhospitable terrain of ahistorical post-modernity's triumphant secularity says something about its staying power, rooted in its inherent appeal to something deep in human experience. 

The result, as Augustine so matter-of-factly noted, is that Lent keeps coming round again as it does every year. So once again here we are on the cusp of Lent. In many parishes this is perhaps the busiest and most satisfying season. More "extra" things are done, with greater hope of popular interest and response. More effort may even be devoted just to doing non-extra things better. And, just as parishes plan Lenten programs and devotions, all sorts of people pause and consider what to do for Lent - what to do differently, or special, or extra, or less of "("giving up") for Lent.

It seems safe to suggest that Lent in Augustine's time was a somewhat serious season with demanding expectations, more so than it has since become in my lifetime. And, even in my own lifetime, my parents' and grandparents' Lent, was still a whole lot more serious and demanding. But, by the time I turned 21 - the age at which the Lenten fast (even in its more relaxed modern form) would have become mandatory - the Lenten fast itself had just recently been entirely abandoned, except for a vestigial token fast of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Growing up familiar with the texts of what Pope Saint Pius X had once called those most ancient Masses of the Lenten season (now also largely gone), I was well aware - from, for example, the ferial Preface and so many of the ancient ferial collects - of the historical centrality of fasting for Lent's self-definition, its very identity. The diminished prominence of fasting in Lent has accordingly saddled the season with an identity crisis of sorts, which takes the form of that now common question - what to do differently, or special, or extra, or less of -  for Lent. 

And here again, as so often happens, Augustine actually offers an answer that challenges us as powerfully today as it did Augustine's audience 16 centuries ago.

For Augustine, Lent mystically signified the essence of our earthly life. So what has to be done throughout the whole of life, how much more during these days of Lent? And what, above all, has to be done throughout the whole of life? Before everything else, brothers and sisters, fast from quarrels and discord. ... These are the two wings of prayer, on which it flies to God: if you pardon the offender what has been committed, and give to the person in need.

No comments:

Post a Comment