While reflecting on the Three Pillars of Lent -- prayer, fasting, and almsgiving - and how they look when viewed through the lens of the missions, one sees that they take on an "other-centered" perspective. Our prayers, of course, need to include the poor, the suffering, and the marginalized of the world; more than that, they also need to include the desire for more people in our world to turn to Jesus Christ.
When we think of fasting, we think of "giving something up." Maybe we forgo our favorite sweet or morning coffee. Perhaps we give up our time for others and volunteer at our parish or a local food pantry. Whatever we let go of as our fast, we must remember, as Boston's Bishop Mark O'Connell pointed out in his Ash Wednesday homily, "It should poke us; it should make us a little uncomfortable!" Our fasting should sting a little so that we remember the real purpose of it: to move ourselves closer to God, and through that relationship, God's people.
Right now, on social media, there's a list of things to fast from that is attributed to Pope Francis. While many of them have great sentiments (Fast from bitterness: fill your heart with joy; Fast from worries: have trust in God...), they are not quite what he said on Ash Wednesday, 2017.
When I read his words from that day, my handy thesaurus helped me to understand them on a deeper level. When he uses the word 'asphyxia,' think of lethargy or numbness.
"Lent is the time to say no to the asphyxia of a prayer that soothes our conscience, of an almsgiving that leaves us self-satisfied, of a fasting that makes us feel good. Lent is the time to say no to the asphyxia born of relationships that exclude, that try to find God while avoiding the wounds of Christ present in the wounds of his brothers and sisters: in a word, all those forms of spirituality that reduce the faith to a ghetto culture, a culture of exclusion."
When we allow our consciences and hearts to become numb to the suffering of others, when we let pride sneak into our fasting ('Look how well I'm doing at giving up candy!'), when our prayers focus on only those we know and love, we are truly suffocating our relationship with God and His people.
May our "other-centered" prayers and fasting become a habit, reminding us to help heal the wounds of our brothers and sisters in the missions, during Lent and beyond.
- Maureen Crowley Heil is Director of Programs and Development for the Pontifical Mission Societies, Boston.
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