The Lord calls us to return to him with our whole heart, we hear on Ash Wednesday, with the prophet Joel saying to us, “Proclaim a fast!” With this instruction, the Church begins the season of Lent.
From the very beginning, fasting, together with prayer and almsgiving, became the way of preparation to celebrate the Passion and death of our Lord Jesus. These penitential practices give us the opportunity to recognize the sinful patterns and practices that have become obstacles to a deeper relationship with God and a closer relationship with our brothers and sisters in the Lord.
This year I suggest for your consideration that you offer your acts of prayer, fasting and almsgiving for our Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East and Africa who are being persecuted and, in some cases, martyred for their fidelity to Christ and to the Church.
While on the surface, the desire to return to our heavenly Father through a period of more intense prayer and fasting may seem to be highly personal and individual, the practice of the disciplines of Lent is meant to bear fruit for the whole community. Any type of Christian penance can be a spiritual homecoming when those efforts move one toward “reconciliation with one’s neighbor, tears of repentance, concern for salvation of one’s neighbor, the intercession of the saints and the practice of charity” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1434).
All acts of penance are part of that total conversion called for by Baptism, a whole inner renewal leading one to think, judge, and arrange one’s entire life under the impulse of the charity revealed to us in Christ. Acts of penance without this inner spirit are lifeless. Moreover, the inner spirit ought to be embodied in deeds. In this vein, keeping persecuted Christians close in our minds and hearts draws attention to three essential dimensions of Lent.
First, scripture and the Church Fathers teach us that the most radical forms of penance are Baptism and martyrdom (CCC 1434). The Christians who have been martyred are a source of grace for the life of the Church. Tertullian, a Church Father of the second century, preached that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church (Apology, ch. 50). These Christian witnesses remind us that martyrdom is the supreme expression of what it means to die and rise with Christ. They are for us teachers of the truth of the faith and Christian doctrine (CCC 2473). In this, they are a source of encouragement for our own resoluteness in keeping our Lenten promises.
Second, we strengthen our brothers and sisters through acts of solidarity and prayer. Those who live in danger in these days, through the power of Jesus and his mother Mary’s intercession, will be fortified by our prayer. Our prayer strengthens the bonds of fraternity among the people of God.
Third, in scripture, fasting is commonly associated with almsgiving (cf. Tobit 12:8; Matthew 6:1-8). When the well-fed fast, they are to share with those most in need; and this sharing by charitable giving is surely an act of love. If you would like to direct this fruit of your fast to Christians living in the Middle East and Africa, please follow this link to learn more about how the Church through Catholic Relief Services and the Knights of Columbus is on the ground providing tremendous aid and support to our brothers and sisters in the Lord.
In keeping in mind the suffering of the people of God and our own suffering, we come to understand more deeply the meaning of Saint Paul’s cry that “if, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him” (Romans 6:8). In our own suffering, because of the Paschal Mystery we become “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”