I have been blessed to have taken several sabbaticals in my near 40 years of priesthood. My last sabbatical was in the Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco area. To transition from parish life to sabbatical, I rode the train from St. Cloud to Oakland, a 54-hour journey. The trip included a detour through the middle of North Dakota, due to a train derailment on the main line and a documentary on train travel by a European film crew. The train ride helped me enter the sabbatical with a more open mind and heart.
Lent, our annual time of renewal, is 17-days from Sunday. The days leading up to Ash Wednesday (March 2) are days to prepare for our Lenten journey. Now is the time to think about what you will need for this year’s 40 days. More time for prayer? More quiet moments built into the day? A devotional or spiritual book to challenge and inspire you? A saint to accompany you? There are as many ways to prepare for this journey as there are people of God who together walk the 40 days.
Our individual Lenten journey plans will differ, yet our beginning point is the same. When we gather on Ash Wednesday, we all hear the same call, the same invitation, proclaimed at the beginning of the first reading: “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning. Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God. “ (Joel 2:12,13) And the Gospel defines for us the ways in which we are to answer that call to return to the Lord. “…[W]hen you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret” (Matthew 6:3-4) … when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. (6:6) … When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to others to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. “ (Matthew 6: 3-18)
But why this call to return to the Lord? Why these disciplines of almsgiving, prayer and fasting? What does all of this lead us to? What is our destination? Certainly, we can take the long view and describe our destination as the heavenly kingdom; eternal life with God, Jesus, Mary and all the saints. Or like the prodigal son, we might have our destination as home — and right relationships with our fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers.
However, the answer to the questions, “Why this call?” and “Why these disciplines?” lies in what we do on Easter Vigil night and Easter Sunday morning. For then, at the end of our Lenten journey, we stand at the font and once again declare that we will renounce Satan and affirm our belief in the Father, The Son and the Holy Spirit, and the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life.
Take these next 17-days to prepare for the Lenten journey with the destination in mind. Spend some time leading up to Ash Wednesday praying about and thinking of ways you will honor the Lenten disciplines of almsgiving, prayer and fasting so that sin may be rooted out of your heart and out of your spirit, and so you will grow stronger in resisting the temptations of Satan. And when we all gather at the font at Easter, come renewed in spirit. Come and profess wholeheartedly your faith in the Holy Trinity, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.