“Lord, make this Lent different from the other ones”

Homily for the First Sunday of Lent, 2023


How often have I lived through these weeks without paying much attention to penance, fasting, and prayer? How often have I missed the spiritual fruits of the season without even being aware of it? But how can I ever really celebrate Easter without observing Lent? How can I rejoice fully in your Resurrection when I have avoided participating in your death?

Yes, Lord, I have to die — with you, through you, and in you — and thus become ready to recognize you when you appear to me in your Resurrection. There is so much in me that needs to die: false attachments, greed and anger, impatience and stinginess…. I see clearly now how little I have died with you, really gone your way and been faithful to it. O Lord, make this Lenten season different from the other ones. Let me find you again. Amen.

Words from an Ash Wednesday prayer written by Henri Nouwen, the well-known Dutch priest and spiritual writer. Probably most of us know all too well that mixture of longing and regret. We want Lent to make a difference, and yet for most of us, most of the time, whatever Lenten disciplines we undertake, we tend to arrive at Easter not that different than we were six weeks earlier. And since we know God isn’t the problem, it must be us. And yet do we have it in us to do any better? Do we have any reason for hope except in God? “Lord, make this Lenten season different from the other ones.”

Jesus goes into the desert for 40 days led by the Holy Spirit, which had just descended on him like a dove at his Baptism with the voice of the Father ringing from the heavens, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” I don’t know about you, but nothing like that happened to me last week, and yet we’re called to follow Jesus into the desert. Lent just comes abruptly, in the midst of Ordinary Time, midweek in fact. And now we have six weeks, the familiar “40 days,” to prepare ourselves to commemorate our Lord’s Passion and death and to celebrate his glorious Resurrection “with greater joy than ever” (in the words of the Easter Prefaces). What does God want from us in the next six weeks?

As long as it is called “today”

Let’s start with the recognition that we don’t have six weeks. We don’t have 40 days. We never have “40 days.” All we have — all any of us ever have — is one day: today. God has given us today; he has not given us tomorrow. He never gives us tomorrow, except by turning it into “today.” This is why the word “today” is so important in the Bible and in the liturgy. It’s why Jesus teaches us to pray “Give us today our daily bread” and urges us not to worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow, he says, will worry about itself. Each day has enough to worry about. The Catechism says:

Time is in the Father’s hands; it is in the present that we encounter him, not yesterday nor tomorrow, but today: “O that today you would hearken to his voice! Harden not your hearts.”

So the question is not “What does God want from me in the next six weeks?” The question is “What do you want from me today, God? How are you leading me right now?” That question, from our hearts, is the first thing God wants from each of us right now: the desire above all to be led by him.

There’s no voice from the heavens for most of us, and yet God does speak to us all, and if we ask, if we knock, if we seek, we will hear him. But we must learn to listen. Next Sunday’s Gospel takes us up the mountain to Jesus’ Transfiguration, where the voice from the heavens speaks again, this time to all of us: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” Pope St. John Paul II said that “these words contain the whole programme for Lent: we must listen to Jesus” (emphasis in original).

Start by hearing the scripture readings in Mass with your whole attention. Consider reading them at home before Mass — this is so easy to do with the internet and smartphone apps. God’s word is living and he speaks to us today in the readings prescribed by the Church.

Jesus goes into the desert: a place of solitude and silence, a place without the demands and distractions and clamor of ordinary life. Not just once; he does this repeatedly throughout his ministry. We all need times of solitude, silence, and freedom from distraction to hear God’s voice. A Christian writer who understood this clearly was Søren Kierkegaard. He wrote:

If I were a doctor, and if I were allowed to prescribe just one remedy for all the ills of the modern world, I would prescribe silence. For even if the Word of God were proclaimed in the modern world, how could one hear it with so much noise? Therefore, create silence.

Lent is a time for creating silence in our lives in order to hear God’s voice. Most of us can’t go into the desert, but every Ash Wednesday the Gospel reading reminds us of Jesus’ teaching regarding the three penitential practices of almsgiving, fasting, and prayer — including his advice to go into your room and shut the door to pray. If he were preaching today, he might say: Go into your room, shut the door, and silence your mobile devices! If you read prayers on mobile devices, put them in focus mode or airplane mode so you aren’t distracted by texts and alerts. Of course a Eucharistic adoration chapel is another great space to seek out silence and listen to God.

Fasting and almsgiving: More than giving up food and money, but not less

In fasting and abstinence from meat, we seek to silence the demands of our body for the regular, tasty food that our bellies are conditioned to expect. For most of Church history, Catholics practiced some kind of fasting and abstaining from meat every day of Lent. Over many centuries, the law of fasting and abstinence has become more and more relaxed, and today the law is that Catholics 14 and older abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent, and Catholic adults who are younger than 59 fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday only.

That’s the law of the Church. It’s important to be clear that no one can tell you you ought to do more than the Church’s law requires. My personal belief is that, for many of us, if we are able to do more regular fasting and abstinence throughout the weeks of Lent, and if we choose to do so — in a spirit of prayer and devotion, offering up our skipped meals and our meat-free meals to God — it is possible to come to a greater freedom from the demands of the body and a greater attentiveness in prayer. (Believe it or not, fasting is hardest at first; the more consistently you do it, the easier it gets. Drink lots of water!)

Like all forms of sacrifice, fasting means giving up what is good in itself: food is good! At the same time, the spiritual benefits of fasting depend on our willingness also to give up our bad habits. Remember the warning of St. Basil the Great:

What good is it to fast from meat but devour your brother with your words? What good is it to abstain from wine but become drunk with anger or fear?

This comes straight from the prophet Isaiah, who warned his contemporaries: “You fast only to quarrel and fight — the fast I choose is to set free the oppressed, to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and clothe the naked.”

Which brings us, of course, to the third Lenten discipline of almsgiving. There’s a natural connection between fasting and almsgiving, because whatever we choose to do without is money we can use to benefit those whose needs are greater than ours. Almsgiving reminds us that holiness is not a private, personal project. We can’t just sit in our room and fast and pray all by ourselves and ignore the needs of people all around us. That’s not holiness.

Almsgiving can and should be more than giving money; it shouldn’t be less, just as fasting should be more than cutting back on food, but not less. Again, St. Basil warns us that the possessions we don’t need — for example, the clothes in our closet we haven’t worn in months or years — these things belong by right to those whose need is greater. If we hold onto such things, St. Basil says, we’re no better than thieves.

There are other ways to give. One great way, for those who are eligible, is donating blood or blood components. For others, the way may be volunteering at a soup kitchen or another local charity. There are even opportunities to volunteer online — for example, tutoring and mentoring low-income students! Almost all of us, if we really want to, can find some way to give.

Maybe there’s something you can do today. Or maybe today is a day for thinking and praying about what you might do tomorrow or later this week. God has only given us today. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts. Lord, make this Lenten season different from the other ones. Amen.