Wednesday, February 17, 2021

The Theme Word for Lent: Permanent

(Ash Wednesday 2021: This homily was given on February 17, 2021 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Joel 2:12-18; Psalm 51; 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2; Matthew 6:1-18.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Ash Wednesday 2021]

For several years when I was pastor, I would offer a “theme word” on Ash Wednesday—a theme word to guide people on their journey through the season of Lent.  I’ll do that again this year. The theme word that the Lord put on my heart for Lent 2021 is the word “permanent”.

I think for many Catholics (and I include myself here) Lent tends to be an isolated 40 days.  Even if we do actually follow through on our Lenten commitments to prayer and self-denial for the entire 40 days (which is a big “if” to be sure)—the tendency is for us to go back to our old ways once Lent is over.

That’s why the word for this Lent is permanent.  Ultimately Lent is about growing in our relationship with Jesus.  That’s the purpose of the extra prayer we engage in, the fasting and self-denial, the “giving up” of certain things we like, the almsgiving and works of charity, the repentance and the confession of our sins, watching the Best Lent Ever videos, etc.

All these good things are supposed to help us grow closer to Jesus and to change us.  But those changes are not supposed to end on Easter Sunday.  The positive changes that we experience through our Lenten disciplines are changes that are supposed to be “permanent”—or at least they’re changes that we should want to be permanent.

I’ll give you one very quick example of what I mean.  I’ve known many people over the years who decided at the beginning of the season of Lent to attend Mass every day.  And they did.  (Well, they might have missed Mass on a day or two, but for the most part they were faithful.)  Then when Lent was over, they thought to themselves, “You know, Mass is a great way to begin the day.  I got a lot out of that experience.  I think I grew closer to God.  Maybe I’ll keep going for a while.”  Well, “for a while” ended up becoming “for the rest of their lives”.

Those people experienced a change in and through a Lenten activity that had a permanent, lasting effect on their lives. 

This, by the way, is the kind of thing the canonized saints of the Church experienced—sometimes during the season of Lent; sometimes at another time of the year.  Like early September.  Right now I’m reading a book on St. Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa), and the author focuses quite a bit on a powerful spiritual experience that Mother Teresa had on September 10, 1946, while she was on a train traveling to her annual retreat.  On that day she experienced what she later referred to as her “call within a call”.  God called out of the religious order she was a member of at the time, to eventually establish a new religious order (the Missionaries of Charity), and to work with the poor, the sick, and the dying in Calcutta and other places.

That experience—that personal and powerful encounter with the Lord on that train in 1946—changed Mother Teresa’s life! It had a permanent, lasting, positive effect on all that she said and all that she did from that moment until the Lord called her home on September 5, 1997.  And it kept her on the road to becoming a saint.

It’s my prayer on this Ash Wednesday that our Lenten encounter with Jesus during the next 40 days will have the same kind of permanent, lasting, positive effect on us—and help us to become saints ourselves.