Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Lent: A Symphony in Two Movements

He is no perfect preacher, who either, from devotion to contemplation, neglects works that ought to be done, or, from urgency in business, puts aside the duties of contemplation.

Gregory the Great,
Moralia Book VI, 56.

As I approach this Ash Wednesday I ask myself, how will I observe this Lent? Part of me wants to add something to my daily regimen, ... some devotion, practice of mercy, or activity. My Archbishop Harry Flynn recently recommended this in his column in the local diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Spirit. Very good advice.

But there is another part of me, the contemplative part, which struggles in another direction, toward simplification, ....quiet, .... stillness. That part of me cringes at adding yet another activity to the day. In fact, the overall tendenz of my life recently indicates that taking an activity away would probably be more in order. This is not "giving up something for Lent," although that could be a part of it. The core issue is creating a space in life for God to be active and present to and through me.

The interim solution (a Type A one!) is to recognize that a true Lent involves both an addition and a subtraction, ....a descent into the earthiness of existence and also an ascent to heavenly contemplation. And this action parallels the great kenotic, down and up and dizzying "swoop" of Christology, hymned so well in Philippians 2:5-11 (NAB):

Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,

coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name

that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,

of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.

As so often happens in Catholic faith, the true way is not "either/or," it's "both/and." It's about quiet and activity, humble service and lofty contemplation, descending and being raised with our Lord.

I also like what St Leo the Great wrote about Lent ( Sermo 6,1-2):

"During these days which remind us more vividly of the mystery of humanity's salvation and of the paschal celebration soon to come, we are bidden to purify ourselves more carefully by way of preparation.

In the paschal celebration the whole Church experiences the forgiveness of sins. For, though baptism is the chief instrument in humanity's renewal, there is also a daily renewal from the corruption inherent in mortality, and everyone, however advanced, is called to be a better person.

All of us must strive for ever greater purity against the day of our salvation. To this end we follow with care and devotion the apostolic custom of a forty-day fast in which we abstain not simply from bodily food but primarily from all evildoing.

For such a holy fast there can be no better companion than almsgiving. But we must note that "almsgiving" or "mercy" here includes the many pious actions which make possible a familial equality among the faithful, whatever be the disparities between them in worldly wealth. For in the love of God and humanity one is always free to will the good."

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