Understanding Our Church

A Treasury of Arkansas Writers Discussing the Catholic Faith

Lent is a time to experience ‘paschal death’ and thus spiritual growth

Published: February 28, 2004

By Sandy Compas

My favorite pastor, when asked from year to year what he was giving up for Lent, always replied, “Watermelon and strawberries!” This never failed to raise eyebrows, as we were far more likely to see snow than strawberries during February and March. Father went on to say, “Choose to do what will help you grow spiritually!”

Also on the parish staff was a maintenance man, Norman, a giant fellow who could hold a piece of drywall with one hand and nail it into place with the other. Every year, Norman gave up meat for the entire season of Lent. “How do you do it?” I once asked, and he grinned. “Every time I get a hankering, I say a prayer!”

And who could forget the redheaded little one who proudly told his catechist, “Lent is that stuff you clean out of your belly button!” She replied, “No, Nathan … but Lent is a good time to clean things out, and clean up our hearts, too!” Lent is an old English word for “springtime,” and is often described as “springtime for our souls.” The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults names it the season of Purification and Enlightenment.

The 40 days are symbolic, as the number 40, when used in the Scriptures, symbolizes the fullness of time. Forty days to accompany those who journey to the font for baptism, and to prepare to renew our own baptismal promises. Forty days to deepen our prayer, to fast from what blocks our relationship with God, to give alms. Forty days to enter into the Paschal Mystery, so that in the fullness of time, we might come to resurrection.

Father Ronald Rolheiser, in “The Holy Longing,” devotes a chapter to the Paschal Mystery. He draws a distinction between terminal death, “which ends life and ends possibilities,” and paschal death, which, “while ending one kind of life, opens the person … to receive a deeper and richer form of life.” Christ’s death on the cross is the paschal death, not only for him, but also for us.

How do we receive his gift of life? How are we following his example? Ready or not, we all experience paschal death. Parents are experts at sacrificing their own needs and desires to put their children first. Then there are many paschal deaths we don’t choose: the loss of a relationship through death or divorce, the loss of a job, the shock of tragedy, the slow agony of watching a loved one suffer.

Transitions like marriage, moving to a new home, embarking on a new career, and many other happenings, even eagerly awaited events, will call us to paschal deaths. Do we limit life and possibilities, or are we open to the mystery of resurrection? Much depends on how we make choices and how we greet those events and interruptions we would never choose.

When we pray, do we listen deeply to what God is saying to us? When we “get hankerings” for more possessions, more power, more prestige, do we turn to prayer? How willing are we to let go of our time, our money, our plans, the desire to have things our way?

The traditional Lenten disciplines have much to teach us, not because sacrifice is good in and of itself, but because prayer, fasting and self-giving enable us to grow spiritually. As we enter into Lent may we truly clean up our hearts, so that Easter finds us ready for the resurrection!