Lent: Pause, acknowledge, improve, act

March 26, 2019

A stained glass window at St. Anne Catholic Church in Houston depicts Jesus calling the apostles. Photo by James Ramos/Herald.

It is hard to believe that we are just about halfway through Lent.

For so many reasons, this has been a different kind of Lent for me. Usually, my heart and activities are focused on a spirit of return; after all, those are the first words we encounter on Ash Wednesday: “Return to me with your whole heart.” (Joel 2:12)

However, those were not the words that captured my attention this year. Instead, it was these lines from the prophet Joel that have stayed with me: “Let the bridegroom quit his room and the bride her chamber. Between the porch and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep, and say, “Spare, O Lord, your people, and make not your heritage a reproach.” (Joel 2:16-17)

Between the porch and the altar, make not your heritage a reproach. Between our entrance and our destination; from the moment when we first entered the Church, to where we receive the presence of God incarnate. Let us not disapprove of our heritage. Let us not look back and be disappointed.

And yet, we are. Many of us in this moment of abuse and shame feel disappointment with what has occurred. Truly this is a penitential season — one that will outlast Lent. It is a moment to pause and acknowledge our sins, but therein lies the beginning of the challenge.

Neither our heritage nor our identity is defined by the clerics who wear a collar. The mission was given us by Jesus Christ: To proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand (Matthew 10); to bring glad tidings to the poor, liberty to the captives; sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed (Luke 4).

This is how we are to be defined. This is the work of which the prophet Joel speaks: “Let the bridegroom quit his room and the bride her chamber.”

We are called to leave our places of comfort so that we may manifest the love of God in our communities. To be fair, many of us do; we contribute and care for those around us to an extraordinary degree.

Though the world is often not what we wish it would be, it is — to a large extent — a remarkable place. We have advanced. We have solved problems that no one thought we could address. We have cared for one another much more often than we have neglected the needs of our sisters and brothers.

Yet, we are increasingly also more aware, and with that comes an increased responsibility to act. This is the difficulty of our life with God, for it is a relationship that demands constant improvement. Not because we are obligated to do so, but because — if it is authentic and based on love — we want to do so.

Thus, Lent is not merely a season of mourning or sorrow; those words are too simplistic to capture the complexity of who we are today. Rather, this is a season of awareness — not only of what we have and have not done, but of our heritage that must give way to a renewed culture. Because our heritage is only disappointing if we keep living it today as we did then. However, if our heritage forms the foundation for a culture that reflects the responsibilities that come with increased awareness, then may we hold our heads high as we stand before God and one another.

In his book, “Culture-Making,” Andy Crouch defines culture as “what we make of the world. It is the name for our relentless, restless human effort to take the world as it is given to us and make it something else. Thus, it is never a solitary affair.”

Rather than retreat into our churches, this moment in time seems to demand that we go outside of them in service of the mission we have received. Too often we are asked how we can support our Church, but more and more, I am asking how we can better support the communities where our churches dwell. What culture will we create that is both rooted in our tradition and stems from the mission given to us by Jesus?

As this is the first of two articles, I hope to outline some specific ideas in the next issue. These are ideas that matter to our local communities, but often get overlooked.

In the meantime, I hope this can be a season of increased awareness as well as courage. Only in community will we be able to address the complexity of our day. May our community rise up in service of God and our neighbor.

Father Chris Valka, CSB, is the chaplain and director of Campus Ministry at the University of St. Thomas.