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My two sisters are marathon runners. Growing up, the three of us would often run road races together. A couple of years ago, my sister Deb invited me to renew our tradition by running in the Yankee Homecoming Road Race in Newburyport. I told myself I would run just for fun and to join my sister. But as we lined up along the starting line, something happened. I started thinking about what I needed to do to run a good race: Are my shoelaces tied? How can I negotiate around the runners in front of me? Because the race had transformed from a nice idea to a concrete action, my awareness of the event, and my need to be prepared to run, had risen. Heightened attention resulted in increased understanding, focus and appreciation.
St. Paul uses the image of running a good race in his reflections on journeying with the Lord. As we are now well over a week into the season of Lent, it seems appropriate to look at how far we have progressed in this spiritual journey. Are you still waiting to mark the significance of this important time in our spiritual lives? Or have you already established the focus needed to transform Lent from an idea to a concrete reality? Are you content with the course you have taken for the first quarter of Lent? Are you more ready today than on Ash Wednesday to celebrate the Easter mysteries and welcome new Catholics at the Easter Vigil?
The three disciplines of Lent -- fasting, prayer and almsgiving -- help to provide the focus we need to grow in the Lord. During Lent, we undertake a deep spiritual journey, one that gives us the opportunity to become closer to Christ and to each other. The external practices are reminders of how Christ lived and died for us. Fasting heightens our sensitivity to our own need for the Lord and to the needs of those who have less. Penitential prayer helps us to turn away from sin and turn to God. Almsgiving attunes us to what is most important in life, shifting our attention from the material to the spiritual and from ourselves to others.
There is a popular Lenten reflection written by William Arthur Ward, an author and motivational speaker, called “Lent: A Time for Fasting and Feasting.” The premise is that Lent is a time to fast from certain things and to feast on others. Ward urges us to: “Fast from judging others; feast on the Christ dwelling in them. Fast from emphasis on differences; feast on the unity of all life. Fast from apparent darkness; feast on the reality of light.” This reflection reminds us that Lent is about spiritual renewal for us as individuals and as a community. We are to eliminate what we don’t need so that we may more fully appreciate what we do need.
Lent is not about giving up peanut butter cups or even giving to charity. These external acts are meant to bring us deeper into our relationship with the Lord and each other. When we take these deliberate, concrete steps, we unite our sacrifices with the sacrifice of Christ. We heighten our sensitivity to his message and come closer to living as he lived. Lent, when approached genuinely, brings us into a more mature and fulfilling relationship with God. Lent is not about our sins. Lent is about feasting on the mercy of God.
If you haven’t yet stepped up to the starting line of your Lenten journey, you can still do so. Approach the weeks ahead with focus, understanding and appreciation. Take the external actions that will heighten your awareness of Christ’s life, and unite your sacrifice with his. At the end of this time of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, you will rejoice in your deeper relationship with God and celebrate the joy of others who have journeyed through Lent in preparation for their baptism at the Easter Vigil.
Father Richard M. Erikson is Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia of the Archdiocese of Boston.