Lent is our way towards Easter. We walk along this path through fasting, praying and giving alms. Easter in the very first instance; fasting, praying and giving alms, make up the outline of this reflection for Lent.
Easter is the annual celebration of the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord. At Easter, we remember Passover, the night in which Israel left Egypt, the end of slavery and the exodus towards the promised land. Easter is the liberation that seemed impossible, it is going out and making your way along the path to return home. Easter is the forgiveness of debts, the end of unlimited credit. Easter is our health, it is light and peace that flows like blessed ointment over all our suffering. Easter is to look at history and realise that nothing has been in vain, that every effort has yielded fruit, that every injury has come back glorious, that- despite years of distance and pain- love has not suffered any losses.
Easter is also knowing that, moving forward, everything is going to be alright, even though it may not seem it. Easter is the answer, at last, the answer. Easter is the Kingdom, the certainty that God is near, that he is not indifferent to what is happening to us, that we matter to him and that he always intervenes in history for our good. Easter is the new creation that filters through the shreds of an old and decadent world, like rays of light that reveal that everything has been made anew, resplendent, perfect, like a recently opened notebook, impeccable, motivating, engaging. Easter is communion, to understand each other in a glance, to know each other’s closeness including when you’re far apart, to have a conversation without words.
Easter is the precious pearl or the hidden treasure in a field, that fill those who find them with joy because- even though they do not yet have the treasure in their hands- they already know that they are fabulously rich. Easter is the action of God that separates out the good fish in you from the bad ones. Easter is the harvest where the wheat is stored in the barns and the weeds are thrown on the fire. Easter is the embrace of the father of the prodigal son. A huge hug like the sky, eternal, complete, that melts grudges and violence. A hug that makes the weapons that you defend yourself with fall to the ground and makes you free to laugh at the things that seemed so serious and burdensome. Easter is rain on the dry land, the relief that is a sure proclamation of the fruitfulness of the earth.
Easter is a feast, an abundant roast dinner that surprises a group of miserable people, who cannot believe that this banquet would be for them. Easter is eternal life, union with those who have already left us, the sureness that we will go to heaven and that to die will be ‘to reunite with our loved ones’. Easter is love, knowing that the Bridegroom will come without fail, that we won’t be left where we are but we will enter into the royal bedroom, to the wedding of the Lamb, to sink together into God for ever.
Who would not want to walk towards Easter? Is there someone who doesn’t want to come with me to celebrate Holy Week? Every year the Earth turns to pass in front of the sun in the equinox of March and we wait for the full moon to come back to celebrate these feasts. Like a spiral, guided by the love of the Father, we are entering a little bit higher, a little bit deeper, into this Feast of Feasts. Every year, like a spiral, we are becoming more intimately united with the passion and death of Jesus Christ. Every year we are participating more intimately and joyfully in his triumph and resurrection. Easter is the Good News, ‘news in progress’, but always progressing, that doesn’t go back, not even to gain momentum.
For that reason, we have to make the most of Lent, not just let it pass us by. Easter is, before anything else, the action of God upon us. The Easter psalm says it clearly; “This is the Lord’s doing and we marvel at it. This is the day which the Lord has made, a day for us to rejoice and be glad.” (Ps 118). So what will we do then? Nothing? No way! We will go out to the desert or we will go up a mountain, to a clear place where you can see the whole horizon. Attentive, expectant, turning off everything that can distract us, full of hope, increasing our capacity to receive, washing ourselves, putting on our party outfits, cultivating expectations without fear, certain that we won’t be deceived, joyous with anticipation of what is going to happen. We will go out and wait for him with lit lamps, waiting for the cry ‘Here comes the Bridegroom!’ This preparation, this going out to the mountain, cleaning yourself and getting dressed, cultivating expectations, this is Lent and that is what fasting, prayer and almsgiving are for.
Fasting is for cultivating hunger and preparing for a banquet. We fast from sin, of course, but also we fast from things that, without being sinful, don’t help us. For that reason we fast from food, from drink, from cigarettes, from impurity, from television, from hyperconnectivity, from always being opinionated, from defending ourselves, from wanting to know everything, from buying, from complaining, from bad temper, from criticising, from being ungrateful, from not allowing happiness in, from comparing ourselves to others, from hoarding, from not liking coming last, from thinking that no one understands me, from wanting to be noticed, from seeking the recognition of people, from having a head and heart full of money, sex and vain ideas. We fast because we want to be alert and these things numb us, they make us despondent and sleepy. We fast in order to not fill our voids with substitutes, in order to experience the necessity that pushes us towards God. We fast in order to wake up, to see our insufficiency and present ourselves in this way, weak, to the all powerful God.
Prayer is to lift the soul to God. ‘Lift up your hearts!’ as the Mass rite says. To pray is to go over the gospels and believe them, not as edifying stories but as real acts that repeat themselves today before the eyes of those that believe them. To pray is to go to an encounter with Jesus Christ, our Lord, like the centurion, like the woman with a haemorrhage, like the apostles, like the blind man who shouts on the road, like the woman who cries pouring out a jar of perfume, it is to climb a tree like Zacchaeus, to walk on the water like Peter and to keep vigil at the tomb like Mary Magdalene. To pray is to wake up to the reality of God and to leave behind the dream that we are alone, abandoned to our own strengths and fists. To pray is to let yourself be washed, cured, converted, made healthy, by the hands of Jesus, by his spittle, by his word, by his embrace that squeezes us and by the chest on which we can rest.
To pray is to go to confess, to prepare your confession, to go into yourself as the prodigal son did, and prepare our speech of repentance, not only from the faults that we fall into but also from the roots that nourish them; vanity, idolatry, greed, negligence or inattention, selfishness. To pray is to let yourself be embraced by the Father like the prodigal son and let yourself be invited to the feast like the eldest son. To pray is to sleep in the presence of God repeating a verse and to wake up in the presence of God giving thanks for the day, for hot water, for breakfast, for work, for family, for community. To pray is to breathe the fresh air of the new morning, inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Lord. To pray is to stop praying to the devil with our litany of bitter thoughts and judgements, in order to pray to God, praising, giving thanks, unloading our worries on him and leaving to him the problems that surpass us. It is to return to the Divine Office and to consecrate, to make holy, each moment of the day. It is to listen to the antiphons and readings that are revealing the Paschal Mystery to us. It is to return to Sunday Mass with wonder, with intention, like a child who is making their First Holy Communion.
Almsgiving, finally, is to go out to encounter others. Almsgiving is to follow Jesus who, being rich, made himself poor for us to enrich us with his poverty. It is to do with others what Jesus did with us. For that reason, the Pope says in his Lent message; no one gives what they do not have nor can they be witness to what they have not experienced. We have experienced forgiveness, health, liberation, the love of the Father in Jesus Christ. And that is the most beautiful thing that we have to give to others. Almsgiving is to help those in need, primarily the poor. Almsgiving is also to go out to an encounter with those who are alone, ill, imprisoned, sad. It is to give a good word, the Gospel, to those who have not received it. To welcome new people, to invite the person that no one ever invites, to listen to the boring person, to visit the irritating relative. Almsgiving is to be reconciled, to ask for forgiveness and to forgive, because the Lord says that there will not be Easter for those who do not forgive their neighbour, that there will not be freedom for those who oppress their brothers and sisters. “In so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.” (Mt 25:40) and also “In so far as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me.” (Mt 25:45). Almsgiving is to let the other person speak. To free the other is to stop thinking badly of them, to not judge them. Almsgiving is to abandon scheming and to not set traps. Almsgiving is to make yourself simple with the simple. It is to repay evil with good, to pray for those who persecute us, to give without expecting anything in return, to love simply because “we have recognised for ourselves and put our faith in the love that God has for us” (1Jn 4:16). “My dear friends, if God loved us so much, we too should love one another.” (1Jn 4:11).
To celebrate Easter is to be grafted into the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The life of a Christian consists in cultivating this gift that we receive like a seed in our baptism. Each time deeper into the suffering of Christ. Each time deeper into his victory. For that reason St Benedict says, Lent is no more than to live a Christian life in all its purity. We should do it all the time, but as we are weak, we try with all our strength to do it to the best of our ability during these forty days. In that way, like a tree that grows every summer, in this way too we progress our baptism until we no longer live but Christ lives in each one of us.
Fasting, prayer and almsgiving. That is what we have to do. “Everyone should- says St Benedict- submit the details of these personal offerings for Lent to the superior for approval and a blessing. This is important; any individual obligation undertaken without the permission of the superior will be accounted as the result of presumption and vainglory so that no reward can be expected for it” (RB 49: 8-9). So, speak with your companions because the Passover of the Lord is near.