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We continue today through this little season of Pre-Lent, once common throughout the Church but now given a new life amongst us in the Ordinariates. It is a season of preparation, of stretching and warming up to the rigors of a holy Lent with its abstinences and penances so that we may worthily and fitly celebrate a glorious Easter with its joy and feasting.
And today is the third and last Sunday of Pre-Lent, the Sunday called Quinquagesima - which simply means “fifty days” - we are now fifty days, counting in round numbers from Easter. And just three days, counting in precise numbers, from Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. The object of these Pre-Lenten days is to prepare ourselves so that we may hit the ground running on Ash Wednesday. As John Betjeman’s humorous little poems has it,
The Gesimas – Septua, Sexa, Quinc
Mean Lent is near, which makes you think…
And that’s all I want to do in this morning’s homily, to think with you just a bit about Lent and remind you and myself, in very practical terms, just what the Church calls us to in keeping a holy Lent. And so this will perhaps be less homily and more Sunday School lesson, but I do want to at least start from this morning’s Gospel.
Jesus points out a peculiar thing with regard to human perception - what we notice, and what we miss: Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Why, indeed? And of course the answer is implicit in the question: our own vision is obscured, our perception is distorted, by the log of our own sin. It makes us notice and magnify the faults of others, but minimize or overlook altogether our own.
But charity, love, in our hearts works, clarifies, and corrects our vision, so that the faults of others seem small and our awareness of their virtues increases. St Therese of Lisieux writes about applying the medicine of charity to improve her perception of her sisters in the convent:
“If, when I desire to increase this love in my heart, the demon tries to set before my eyes the faults of one or other of the Sisters, I hasten to call to mind her virtues, her good desires; I say to myself that if I had seen her fall once, she may well have gained many victories which she conceals through humility; and that even what appears to me a fault may in truth be an act of virtue by reason of the intention.”
By very intentionally looking with the eyes of love and humility, like putting on a pair of glasses, Therese is able to see her sisters in a new way: she can see the good in them, what is lovely in them.
Which brings me back around to Quinquagesima, and preparing for Lent. Because Lent itself is a kind of preparation, forty days of prayer and fasting, so that we may see clearly the love of God poured out for us in Christ. It is taking us to Good Friday, when our Lord, for us men and for our salvation, put out into the deep of the great sea of love so that we might share in the great miracle of Easter Sunday.
So, on this Quinquagesima Sunday, we want to think about keeping a holy Lent, to be ready for Ash Wednesday. So what does the Church, first of all, require of us in Lent. And require, you know, is the right word. "You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church" is one of the seven precepts of the Church, binding on all Catholics - these “positive laws,” as the Catechism says, “decreed by the pastoral authorities … meant to guarantee to the faithful the very necessary minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor.”
So here is what the current code requires as our necessary minimum for Lent:
1. A day of fast is one on which Catholics who are eighteen to fifty-nine years old are required to keep a limited fast. In this country, one may eat a single, normal meal and have two snacks, so long as these snacks do not add up to a second meal. Children are not required to fast, but their parents must ensure they are properly educated in the spiritual practice of fasting. Those with medical conditions requiring a greater or more regular food intake can easily be dispensed from the requirement of fasting by their pastor. The days of fasting are Ash Wednesday - that’s this coming Wednesday - and Good Friday.
2. A day of abstinence is a day on which Catholics fourteen years or older are required to abstain from eating meat (under the current discipline in America, fish, eggs, milk products, and condiments or foods made using animal fat are permitted in the Western Rite of the Church, though not in the Eastern Rites.) Again, persons with special dietary needs can easily be dispensed by their pastor. Ash Wednesday and all Fridays in Lent are days of abstinence. Of course it used to be that abstinence was required all other Fridays during the year, except during Eastertide. Since the reforms after the Second Vatican Council, Catholics in America are currently to offer some kind of penance of their own choosing on Fridays.
Now, those days of fasting and abstinence are what is minimally required of us. But of course it is the custom as well - not a requirement but a custom - to “give up” something during Lent, or even to take on some spiritual discipline. And I want to encourage all of us to think between now and Ash Wednesday about how we and our families can enter fully into Lent, to have a plan, of how to approach this privileged time of preparation for memorial of our redemption. Self-denial of pleasures, things not wrong in themselves, is liberating - it trains our wills so that we are not slaves to our appetites and desires, so that in the circumstances of our lives when the law of love requires sacrifice, we will be ready to say no to ourselves so that we can say yes to our neighbor in need.
Self-denial, giving things up, also strengthens us in the battle against temptation. When we discipline our wills to refuse ourselves pleasures when they are not sinful, we strengthen ourselves to say no to pleasures and indulgences when they are sinful.
Denying ourselves some of our usual indulgences also teaches us solidarity with those who go without every day because of their poverty - it binds us to our neighbors in need. It is good for us to know what it is like to be hungry voluntarily, so that we will learn compassion for those who are in real and constant hunger.
And finally, denying ourselves these small pleasures, our usual indulgences, gives us just a glimpse into what our Lord gave up for us, what our redemption cost him, emptying himself for us and becoming obedient to death, even death on the cross. And when we understand our Lenten disciplines that way, we will find Lent to be a time of joy and gratitude, because it will allow us to see more clearly, to feel more deeply, God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.
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