As we near the end of this year’s journey through Lent, I would like to lead with my favorite joke involving this special time of the liturgical year:
A parish priest was leaving a sick call late one winter night. As he rounded a dark corner, a man jumped out from behind a car and barked, “Stick ’em up!” The priest carefully unbuttoned his overcoat to get to his wallet, and in the process revealed his Roman collar. The thief stepped back and said, “Oh Father, I didn’t know who you were, please forgive me!” The priest was so relieved that he reached into his other pocket and pulled out a cigar and offered it in thanks. The robber declined. “No, thank you, Father; I gave up cigars for Lent.”
The punch line works every time because the whole incident could have been avoided if the thief had given up the more meaningful thing, stealing, and continued with his smoking! The kenosis necessary to empty himself of his thieving ways combined with the “candy” of smoking cigars would be an even more effective offering for Lent.
As we approach Holy Week and the Easter season, it is a good time to reassess and renew our commitment to the purpose and essence of our Lenten sacrifices. The three pillars of Lent — prayer, fasting, and almsgiving — are actually the three mainstays of Christian discipleship. Marian Oblate Fr. Ronald Rolheiser, in The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality, describes these disciplines as “non-negotiable” in Christian life and spirituality. As we approach the Easter season in these final days of Lent, let us delve a little deeper into these three areas.
Kenosis in Prayer
In The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Christian prayer is fleshed out in just under two hundred pages in the fourth and final section of the work. The Lord’s Prayer, in particular, is upheld as a template for all of our prayers, both public and private. It is “truly the summary of the whole gospel” (CCC § 2761) as we ask for our daily bread, we can commit to communion with God through daily prayer.
Prayer has often been likened to a conversation. In a well-balanced conversation, each party should talk and listen in equal measure, or at least with as much give and take as possible. In Marriage Encounter, a Catholic program designed to make good marriages better, there is a process called “10/10” to facilitate communication between spouses. The key to a successful application of “10/10” is to set aside a place and a time each day where each partner talks for ten minutes and listens for ten minutes. Consecrating (setting aside) a time and a place ensure the privacy and importance of daily, meaningful dialogue.
We can apply the principles of our daily visits with one another to our prayer relationship with God. Ten minutes of saying what we want to say, and ten minutes of “listening”. The second half is in quotation marks perhaps for obvious reasons: we don’t listen with our ears. In addition, God rarely answers in real time! To enter into silence before God takes practice and patience, but we are assured through faith that God hears and answers all of our prayers in His perfect way and time. In order to make room for prayer, fasting from other activities is an excellent way to find that precious time.
Kenosis in Fasting
There has been a kind of tension over the years as to what to offer up for Lent. Some say drinking, smoking, and candy, while others say fasting from bitterness and being judgmental is the way to go. I would like to suggest both! Our penitent robber would have done well to give up both cigars and pilfering! There is also fasting from the time we call our own. The time that we would normally spend relaxing or watching TV can be devoted to prayer or good works.
The key to fasting is to be a cheerful giver, and not to give grudgingly or in a way that dilutes our gift to God. To give up something small or to combine fasting with a weight-loss regimen we would have undergone anyway misses the mark. Giving up life’s little pleasures along with sacrifices requiring the kenotic, Christ-like giving can bring about meaningful efficacy in our lives as Christians.
Kenosis in Almsgiving
Just about everyone in our society has had an encounter with a person holding up a sign asking for money. There are many variations, but the “ask” is the same. When Jesus walked through Jericho, He encountered people asking for alms. We are encouraged to interact with those we meet in this position with the dignity and respect they deserve.
When the subject of this kind of giving arises, the reality that the money might be used for drugs or alcohol usually comes up. While there is always that chance, we are called to “Give to everyone who begs from you” (Matthew 5:42) after prayerful consideration. Elsewhere in scripture, Jesus asks us when giving a dinner to “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Luke 14: 13) The gift should be freely given with no “strings attached” and with no expectation of repayment.
In these final days of Lent, let us pray for the grace to offer the little things like candy in our lives along with the more meaningful self-emptying that kenosis affords as we journey toward Easter. God will not be outdone in His generosity as He receives our gifts, both big and small.