Lent: Rooted in Belonging

What is belonging?

When we belong, we experience fitting in, just as we are, right now. We experience being a part of something bigger than ourselves. We are able to share and give of our unique gifts, and know that these actions are welcomed and needed. We have a home, a place of acceptance, warmth, and love. The origins of the season of Lent indeed reveal the depth and power of belonging for Christians.

Lent: Not Just Individual Piety

Now, in our modern culture, many (if not most!) think of Lent as a season of individual piety for the most devout Catholic believers. Yet, the ancient origins of Lent lie in the practices of those preparing for baptism or to publicly reconcile with the Church.* These ones on the “outside” of the wider Christian community would prepare for full communion at Easter in symbolic imitation of the “40 days” of Jesus in the wilderness–an event with ties to both Moses and Elijah’s “40 days” (Mt 4:1–11, Mk 1:12-13, Luke 4:1–13, Ex 34:28, 1 Kgs 19:8). 

The Christian community implicitly grasped the profound significance of belonging. Instead of allowing those on the “outside”–the unbaptized, the un-reconciled–to engage in a Lenten preparatory period of spiritual growth alone, the entire Christian community entered into the same journey. The circle of belonging was not merely for those who were already baptized, for those who believed and behaved in ways that left no need for public reconciliation–it was for everyone. The actions of the early Church say, “We’re all in Lent together. We all belong here.” Joining the unbaptized in preparing for baptism shows that we are all sinners in need of God’s grace–we’re all imperfect yet being made perfect in love by the one who is Love.

Lent for Early Christians

What would the unbaptized, joined by the entire Christian community, actually do to prepare for baptism? Like Jesus during his post-baptismal time in the desert wilderness, Christians were encouraged to “satisfy themselves with the Word of God [more] than with bodily food,” in “bountiful benevolence” a “hunger and thirst for righteousness” to be “be filled with those kinds of food which feed us for eternity” (St. Leo, Sermon 40; Mt 5:6). Forgiving, living virtuously, caring for the poor and marginalized, and prayer become part of Lent. Acts of penance that are internal and individual, as well as external and social are encouraged (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 110). And, of special emphasis, fasting that reminds us our lives are not our own, we depend on God and others for life’s most basic needs. This culminates at Easter with a common font of the true water of life, where we all experience home–both those who are baptized and the wider community who renews baptismal vows with the same water. Jesus begins his desert time “filled with the Holy Spirit,” and at the end of his “40 days” overflows in the “power of the Spirit,” proclaiming in the words of Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to announce the Good News” (Lk 4:1,14,18). We too can confidently expect the Spirit to lead us during Lent, and empower all of us who are anointed in baptism (even the most newly baptized) to announce the Good News.

In a 5th century Lenten sermon, Pope St. Leo the Great rallied believers:

“let us all together, without difference of rank, without distinction of desert, with pious eagerness pursue our race from what we have attained to what we yet aspire to.” (Sermon 40)

Becoming a church community where all experience belonging means putting aside “differences of rank”–of assuming that certain religious backgrounds, relationship statuses, family sizes, occupations, or types of people fit in the Church, your parish, or ministry, more than others. It means ensuring that we live out St. Leo’s exhortation to avoid making “distinctions of deserts”–implicitly judging or looking down on the spiritual and practical struggles of another. As St. Paul writes, “all have sinned and continue to fall short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23).   

Lent: Icon of the Entire Year

If the baptismal character and roots of Lent seem a bit lost or murky in your practical and lived experiences of Lent, then this is something to address–a wonderful opportunity for your church community! As the bishops explained at the Second Vatican Council:

The season of Lent has a twofold character: primarily by recalling or preparing for baptism and by penance, it disposes the faithful, who more diligently hear the word of God and devote themselves to prayer, to celebrate the paschal mystery. This twofold character is to be brought into greater prominence both in the liturgy and by liturgical catechesis. (Sacrosanctum Concilium [Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy], para. 109)

How to do this is left to your discernment, but the important part is to do it–allow Lent to be not merely individualistic penance, but also a powerful recalling and preparation for baptism, a solidarity among all rooted in our common need for God’s forgiveness, an authentic belonging.

This belonging embodied in Lent is what we are called to be at all times during the year. Just as the Prodigal Father runs out to meet his Prodigal, Older Son, our Lenten practices call us out of individualism and self-centeredness in our walk with Jesus to a deep solidarity with the unbaptized–a true experience of belonging for all (Lk 15:11-32). For each and every one of us, the roots of Lent reveal a call to be more humbly open to others, more open to belonging as we pursue “what we yet aspire to,” together in Jesus our Lord.  

Duncan Rawlinson @ Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

*Note The practice of imitating Jesus’ “40 days” symbolically (it was not universally precisely 40 days) was preparation for Baptism. After the Council of Nicea (325 AD), the Paschal Triduum (Easter) emerged as the ideal and preferred day for baptisms. With this, the “40 days” became more commonly located immediately prior to Easter, and the Paschal Fast that already was practiced during the 2 to 7 days prior to Easter. For those interested in the documentary evidence for this historical evolution, I recommend Paul Bradshaw and Max Johnson’s The Origins of Feasts, Fasts, and Seasons in Early Christianity (2011). 


Catechesis and Prayer

Do your faith formation classes teach people about prayer or form people as pray-ers?

Yesterday marked the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)’s annual “Catechetical Sunday”–an unofficial kick-off to the new academic year of catechesis in parishes across the United States. This year’s theme is Prayer: The Faith Prayed, a great opportunity to consider the essential relationship between prayer and catechesis in your parish or Catholic school. 

Here’s the reality, all too often we think of catechesis or religious education as a collection of doctrines, of specific claims, statements, and positions to be learned. Something that can be fully captured in a good textbook. Yet this ignores the example of our very own Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). Part 4 of the Catechism itself is “Christian Prayer.” Catechesis essentially includes the action of praying. As this year’s theme reveals, “pray” as a verb is an action of, and in, true catechesis.

Now you might be thinking, “yes, this is obvious–of course we pray during religion class, and of course our second grade students are required to memorize such-and-such prayers.”

But, what I offer to you is this: how we pray in catechesis often teaches more about prayer than our planned “lessons” ever do.

Do you offer prayer in a perfunctory, obligatory, rushed way? I certainly have. Especially when I feel a “crunch” for valuable time in a classroom.

Yet as I reflect on this, yikes, what am I really teaching my students by doing that? For one, I’m making prayer all about me. “There, I’ve said a prayer [and hopefully everyone has prayed or at least listened], and now we can move on.” Secondly, have I set the conditions for God to actually speak? i.e. Have I left any space (i.e. time, silence) for my students to hear God’s voice speaking to them personally? Am I treating this moment with the full dignity of expectation that this could be the most important part of class? That my students might tangibly encounter the Divine?

As a catechist, woe to me if I’m ever proud or satisfied that my students have memorized their prayers through hard work of drilling with their parents. While rote memorization in itself is an important, basic step in cultivating one’s prayer life (General Directory for Catechesis, no. 154)–the how of memorization matters. Memorization that occurs organically through the repeat action of praying, rather than attempting to memorize the Apostles Creed as if the Constitution, conveys the reality, significance, and words of a prayer (while memorization as for a quiz merely teaches words). Forming and empowering Christians of all ages to actually pray–to converse with God–this gift in the Holy Spirit should be my only “satisfaction” as a catechist. If my students can only follow me in prayer, and not pray on their own–then I have not fulfilled my full calling as a catechist.

Today’s Gospel (Lk 8:16-18) offers a parable where Jesus declares to his audience, “No one who lights a lamp conceals it with a vessel or sets it under a bed; rather, he places it on a  lamp stand, so that those who enter may see the light.”

In catechesis, prayer is our light–“the faith prayed.” Prayer illuminates, brings power, spreads the warmth of God’s love, and is a moment of personal intimacy with God available to each and every person–every child, every adult, in every faith formation setting. Let us not be content to show a photograph of this “lamp” to our students for study. No, in catechesis we must pray and form pray-ers. Light the lamp with our students and experiencing the Light together.


a version of this post also appears at newevangelizers.com

St. Mark’s Challenge to Us

Image: Wikipedia (Saint Mark, Donatello)

Happy feast of St. Mark, the Evangelist!

Mark the Evangelist gave us a distinctively short Gospel, with the word “immediately” seemingly used in just about every narrative…something like 40x in 16 chapters–whoa…no thesaurus.com in antiquity! 😉  But, God inspired him as a true human author, using his unique skills and personality to give us an action-packed, fast-moving evangelization project that still manged to provide us extra vivid details into Jesus’ wondrous deeds and a dramatic half-way-thru-the-Gospel shocking turn to blunt emphasis on Jesus’ servant-kingship.

St. Mark the Evangelist also uniquely “punts” the ball to us in his first “curtain call” ending (16:8) where he makes it look as if Jesus’ Resurrection is the end of the story here. The end of any message of salvation going forth, as the women flee from the tomb, trembling, astonished, and saying nothing of this to anyone. Ouch.

While we as modern-day Christians are blessed with the benefit of additional longer, canonical manuscript endings (16:9-20 proclaimed in today’s Mass), there were likely many early believers who only heard the first “curtain call” ending. Yikes. It’s hard for us to imagine!

Yet, think about the implied responsibility Mark is creatively pointing us toward. St. Mark is reminding us that now it is up to us to choose to take an active role in spreading the word about this great miracle, this victory over death that changes lives for the better! St. Mark recorded his Evangel (Gospel) in writing, but now it’s time for anyone who hears and believes to continue to share the message, to evangelize in their own unique time in history, guided and empowered by the same Holy Spirit that inspired Mark is such an amazing way 🙂

St. Mark the Evangelist, pray for us that we would respond to your challenge with the urgency, joy, and excitement you modeled, and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in word and deed through our lives as disciples.

Pentecost During Lent: Feast of the Chair of St. Peter

Today’s Feast of the Chair of St. Peter the Apostle calls us to understand the Papal Office, our lives as disciples, and Jesus’ enduring summons to Christian unity as inherently related and dependent on the Holy Spirit.

This feast actually began as two separate celebrations–one day marking Peter’s “chair” of apostolic ministry in Antioch, and another to mark his later apostolic ministry in Rome. Yes, there once was a literal piece of furniture (a chair) saved from the time of Peter, but this was destroyed relatively early on in Christian history. So, (sorry “Antiques Roadshow” fans) no historical furniture exists. But what’s more important than a physical chair is the idea of Peter’s seat–his office of apostolic ministry and leadership.

As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI preached while celebrating this feast in 2006, the first seat was not even in Rome or Antioch, but in the Upper Room, in Jerusalem on Pentecost. On this day, the Holy Spirit was sent in order that the Spirit might “continually sanctify the Church” (CCC §767). How? Special graces (called charisms) are poured out and enable believers to “undertake various tasks and offices for the renewal and building up of the Church” for the good of humanity and the world (CCC §798-9). All of us believers in the Body of Christ have different charisms in accord with the different special graces poured out upon us (CCC §2004).

Some particular graces are named “hierarchic,” literally meaning sacred order (CCC §768). These gifts of sacred order are exercised in a particular office or position in the Body of Christ. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, the Lord gave:

some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ (Eph 4:11-2).

Benedict XVI demonstrated the precise nature of hierarchic gifts concretely through his resignation in 2011 (the “greatest act of papal humility”). He stepped away from particular hierarchic gifts by leaving an office in the Body of Christ, a position of sacred order.

What was the purpose of this seat, this office first occupied by Peter? Most concretely, to keep Jesus Christ’s disciples unified in faith and in charity (Benedict XVI, 2012 homily). Bishops are successors to the apostles, and the Bishop of Rome in a particular way is a successor to Peter, receiving the hierarchical gift of serving the function of unity and charity in the Body of Christ. The title “pontiff” gives us a wonderful illustration. Pontiff comes from the French and Latin words for “bridge” (pons). (Or, think in English, of a “pontoon boat”–same root!] The Bishop of Rome, in his Papal Office serves as a bridge between all other bishops, guiding the flock of Jesus’ disciples in unity of faith and love.

Talking about the Pope the wrong way can sometimes come across as arrogant–i.e. I’m a Catholic. We have a Pope. Therefore we’re “better” than that non-denominational congregation down the street. It’s not about being better or superior. No. This feast celebrating Peter’s seat, his office inspires us to pray for the Pontiff as bridge, pray for unity and charity in the Body of Christ–a Body that extends beyond the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church (Decree on Ecumenism, §3).

In fact, this Feast of the Chair of St. Peter was formerly celebrated on January 18th, as the start to the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity (which ends on Jan 25th, the feast of the conversion of St. Paul). The Holy Spirit is one with God the Father. The God of Mercy who wills “that all may be one” (John 17:21). The Holy Spirit gives hierarchic gifts of the Spirit so that we (who as believers in Jesus Christ, are all uniquely given particular charisms for the good of the Body) can be one in faith and charity. Devoted to “the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42). This is the Spirit-filled vision of Peter’s chair–from Pentecost to the present day.

I recall being very blessed, three years ago, to bring my first child to his first Mass on this day. What did we see? A weekday reception of a fellow brother in Christ into full communion and a surprise choral post-communion hymn from his enthusiastic friends and family. What an outpouring of the Spirit, a reminder that even during Lent, we’re a Pentecostal church for sure! 🙂

All Saints Day: The Miracle is Right Here

Near the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus says to Thomas, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” (John 20:29).

Sometimes one can get the impression (through our own dryness in prayer or even just the ordinary language we use in church-life) that most of us don’t see miracles. Even Christian culture sometimes subtly tells us that miracles mostly happened before the very eyes of early believers in the New Testament era–today they are harder to see, harder to find. I sometimes wonder if this mental outlook fuels the fascination with Medjugorje as real-live supernatural for some Catholics today.

Today’s Solemnity of All Saints shows us that supernatural miracles happen all the time in our modern era, right in front of our eyes. In the Letter to the Ephesians (2:13), we Christians are told:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have become near by the blood of Christ.

Talk about a miracle par-excellence. That through the blood of Christ someone as worldly, prone-to-pride, blemished, sinful, and imperfect [in a myriad of ways I prefer not to recount here publicly :-)] as I could be reconciled to God. Could be at peace with the God who is Love. 

And this peace, this reconciliation with God comes with a supernatural, miraculous raise in my stature. The Letter to the Ephesians goes on to explain (vs 19):

So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God

Fellow citizens with the holy ones, fellow saints!

Through the blood of Jesus, invitation of the Holy Spirit, and grace-filled love of God the Father, I am a saint. I have experienced a supernatural miracle. Like Thomas, I have seen it and believe it.

History and Liturgical Pre-Evangelization

In his 2010 post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Verbum Domini, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI emphasized the relationship between human history and Christianity:

“The historical fact is a constitutive dimension of the Christian faith.

The history of salvation is not mythology, but a true history, and it should thus be studied with the methods of serious historical research” (§32).

Now in this context, he’s talking about the historicity of Scripture. That the rooted-ness, the fact that every Biblical text has a real human author in an actual historical situation isn’t of passing interest to disciples of Jesus, but somehow a constitutive dimension.

Since our knowledge of ancient Israel’s qahal as a foundation for Christian worship is so deeply rooted in the Old Testament, I think the idea of historical fact as a dimension of the faith applies liturgically as well. And more clear, vibrant experiential knowledge of this can serve as pre-evangelization.

How can this be pre-evangelization?

I think the unquestioned dominance of the “New Evangelical Liturgy” in non-Catholic churches has peaked. It’s still (and will continue to be) widespread, but among non-denominational, post-denominational, and emergent churches I notice greater interest in Christian liturgy. For example, a series on the origins of Christian ritual [liturgy] and encouragement to pray the Divine Office at Mars Hill in Grandville, Michigan. Or, the Ancient-Future church network. Or this observation:

“one of the consistent themes of millennial evangelical social criticism tends to be a more skeptical attitude toward American materialism, or at least certain types of American materialism. Alongside that trend, the emergence of churches like Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan as well as the somewhat surprising resilience of many orthodox Anglican congregations suggest that the future of American Christianity likely is a more high church, liturgically informed type of Christianity–but such a Christianity is not essentially incompatible with Protestantism.” (Jake Meador, MereOrthodoxy)
Individuals in our culture do still have a human need to connect to history, to a way of worshiping and belonging to community that is not of our own modern creation. Think of the societal fervor surrounding Pope Francis’ recent visit to the United States, or the fact that individuals still flock to Ash Wednesday services (even though this is not an obligation in any Christian tradition I know of)–why? A basic human need for embodied belonging. A need so common that even though many write-off “liturgy” as “stiff” or “boring,” the desire remains within.
We pre-evangelize when we cultivate conditions to connect this basic human need to God. There’s a human need for rituals that connect us in bodily form to human history. The historicity of liturgy is not something to avoid or hide in embarrassment, but to embrace. History is powerful, and when we live in such a way that our witness speaks to this connection, we offer others the opportunity to recognize their desire for the transcendent.
In this light, Benedict’s assertion that “historical fact is a constitutive dimension of the Christian faith” is then not a crutch or constraint, but yet another means of pre-evangelization through our own joyful witness.