Don’t miss the ‘agape’ in Lent this year

Vladimir Mauricio-Perez

It’s estimated that the average American can save around $700 if they give up chocolate, fast food, alcohol, caffeine and cigarettes during Lent. In fact, many Catholics don’t only think about saving when it comes to giving something up for Lent, they also think about shedding some pounds, getting in shape or recommitting to their New Year’s resolutions.

Nonetheless, focusing on these goals is like buying a ticket to a football game and watching it on the nearest bar TV. It’s missing out on the real stuff.

What is the real stuff? The agape in Lent.

When John the Baptist’s disciples came to Jesus to ask him why his disciples didn’t fast, they got quite an unexpected answer: “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and they will fast” (Mt 9:14-15).

In other words, he meant the Church (that is, the bride) fasts because she wants him, and, why should she when she already has him?

“This means that from the moment the Lord ascends to heaven, the Church unites with Jesus in a special way, evoking his glorious return, and so we do penance to prepare ourselves and unite ourselves with him,” said Father Jose Antonio Caballero, theology professor at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver and parochial vicar at St. Pius X Parish in Aurora.

The relationship of the disciples with Jesus changes after the Ascension. They can no longer see him or touch him. They must now unite with him in a different way. This is where the agape comes in.

Agape is the highest form of love; it is self-sacrificing love, the love Christ showed for the Church and humanity. Uniting with Jesus is uniting with his love story, with his Paschal Mystery: His passion, death and resurrection.

In other words, the Lenten season is meant to help the Christian enter into the mystery of his agape love and entering into that mystery means becoming more in his likeness, loving with total gift of self. As Pope Benedict XVI said, “man and woman come to resemble God to the extent that they become loving people.”

“The real sense [of Lent] is to participate, prepare ourselves and walk with Christ,” Father Caballero said. “And let us remember what walking with God implies in the Gospel. He tells his disciples, ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’” It implies walking in his footsteps.

This brings about the greatest paradox. The less a Christian puts himself in the center of the universe, the more he knows himself; the more he dies to himself, and the more fully he lives.

Let this Lent go beyond giving up chocolate or trying a new diet. Think about replacing what is keeping you from loving Christ and others with Christ-like love. In the end, Lent is more about letting oneself be transformed than seeking to transform oneself.

What must be kept in mind, however, is that actions such as penance and fasting are the way a person opens his heart to God, to let him work wonders in and with him.

When a person does penance and sacrifices with Christ in the center, it gives meaning to all that is human: “Suffering, death, solitude, sickness…,” said Father Caballero, “We then learn to see everything in the light of Christ’s mystery. All of these realities are redeemed in its light. Given that Christ assumes even the consequences of our sins, he gives them a redemptive meaning. This is the truth that we proclaim.”

This is the real stuff. A true Lenten resolution will bring about an abundance of graces to him who longs to see his face.

COMING UP: How to live Lent, according to the Catechism

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

If there’s one thing we think we know about Lent, it’s that we’re supposed to “give something up.”

We’re not sure why, but we pick something we like to indulge in, and resolve to “fast” from Netflix or chocolate or cursing or (insert current obsession) for the next 40 days. We think this is living Lent, and that we’re being good Catholics, but mostly we feel like we are missing the point.

Always the sure guide, we turned to the Catechism of the Catholic Church for some help uncovering what Lent is all about, and for some specific suggestions on how to ensure we take advantage of the spiritual opportunities available to us during this liturgical season.

Enter the desert

Lent, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is a time during which “the Church unites herself … to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.”

Jesus was “driven by the spirit into the desert” after his baptism in the Jordan, and he remained there for 40 days in solitude, without eating. The 40 days were really a preparation for what came next—the temptations in the desert.

Jesus did not succumb to the temptations of Satan in the desert, which the Catechism says “anticipates victory at the Passion.”

Before the victory, however, there was the forty days of fasting and prayer, and it’s this mystery we are encouraged to unite ourselves to during the 40 days of Lent.

The Catechism suggests various specific practices for lent: “spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works).”

We break these practices down into seven specific things you can do over the next 40 days to unite yourself to Christ in the desert, above and beyond just “giving something up.”

Pray

It should be noted that the first suggestion invites us to above all intensify our prayer life. To unite ourselves to the mystery of the desert means we are to enter the desert with Christ, and that means solitude, silence, and prayer.

This could mean dedicating oneself to prayer for a set time each day, making an effort to read Scripture, or spending an hour each week before the Blessed Sacrament. Look at what you currently do, and increase it a little bit.

Go on a retreat

Lent is the ideal time to get away from the normal routines of life for a few days and attend a spiritual retreat. Half-day retreats or parish missions are common during Lent, and are ideal moments to unite oneself to Christ alone in the desert.

Go to confession

Retreats are a good opportunity to also avail ourselves of “penitential liturgies.” This simply means, go to confession. If you can’t attend a retreat, take a half day or maybe a few hours to go over a thorough examination of conscience. Try to go to confession shortly afterward.

Make a pilgrimage

A pilgrimage is a physical journey to a holy place that reflects our spiritual journey toward heaven. Within the territory of the Archdiocese of Denver there are several holy places one could visit alone, or as a family, or as a parish community, that could serve as a destination for a half-day or day-long pilgrimage. Mother Cabrini Shrine is always a good choice, but also one could visit the Shrine of St. Anne, the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception (and the tomb of Servant of God Julia Greeley), or the Parish Shrine of Our Lady Guadalupe.

Fast

It should be noted that fasting comes after suggestions to intensify spiritual and penitential practices, and before suggestions to give alms and do works of mercy. Fasting should be done within the context of prayer, repentance and almsgiving. Fasting without these other elements is simply exercising willpower.

Give alms

Giving to the poor is an essential duty of every Christian, and during Lent we are called to intensify the practice. Give to your parish, to Catholic Charities, to a food bank or to another charity of your choice. We often forget that giving alms can also include giving to a friend, family member or neighbor in dire need.

Give yourself

At the end of the list of penitential practices, the Catechism includes “charitable and missionary works.” These are works of service to the poor, or to your neighbor. The obvious suggestions include volunteering at a shelter run by Catholic Charities or your parish, or other charitable works.