Lent, a Way to Freedom?

Do you like Lent? Well, I don’t. At least not spontaneously. Having to listen to talks about conversion, penance, fasting, questioning my lifestyle, material sharing, and with all that purple in the liturgy, so sad, for 40 days. It doesn’t really appeal to me, and I could do without it.

However, if I pause and reflect momentarily, I will be forced to admit that I need it. We’ve made the most of the festive season, we’re back to the routine of ordinary time (which, we’re told, must be lived “in an extraordinary way”!), and the little routines have started to fall back into place, with the ever-present risk of mediocrity and lack of creativity.

So, let’s move on. Let’s get going! We’ve been hearing more lately about the journey ahead. Pope Francis, for example, in his Lenten letter this year, speaks of crossing the desert and of freedom. Recently, in his invitation to us to prepare for the Jubilee Year of 2025, the theme he proposed is: “Pilgrims in Hope”. So, we need to keep moving, like pilgrims on a journey. Interspersed throughout all this is the synodal journey we started many months ago, between two celebrations, and we’re still on the move. It’s not easy to establish yourself when you’re a Christian or a missionary in our Catholic Church. Here, I’ll focus on the first two propositions.

God leads us to freedom through the desert

This is the title of Pope Francis’ Lenten letter. It begins with a quotation from Exodus (20:2): “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”. The project is clear: our Lent is presented as a time of desert and freedom. The Pope adds: “When our God reveals himself, he communicates freedom”. From the outset, he insists on what prevents us from freeing ourselves: our attachment to slavery. In the desert, God educates his people and vigorously calls them to freedom; this was the long journey during the Exodus when the people were resistant on several occasions. 

Today, however, we too are attached to constraining bonds which we must abandon and which are often the consequence of a lack of hope. We know the desert is a place of temptation and divine seduction (Hosea 2:16-17). Lent is the season of grace in which the desert becomes once more the place of our first love, where the Lord reminds us of the very thing that once set us on this journey: that unforgettable encounter with his son. Where is your treasure?

To be concrete,” says the Pope, “we must break free from Pharaoh’s domination. He reminds us of the questions raised in Lampedusa about migrants: “Where are you?” (Gn 3:9) and “Where is your brother?” (Gn 4:9). He denounces the culture of indifference.

First, we must recognise that we live in a model of growth that divides and robs us of a future, polluting creation and our souls. Do I want a new world? Am I ready to free myself of my compromises? Our lack of hope is an obstacle to our dreams, a regret for slavery that paralyses. He believes this is why we cannot overcome global inequalities and conflicts. 

We must look our idols in the face, our desire to be recognised, valued, and dominate others. We become attached to idols like money, our projects, our ideas, our goals, our position, our traditions and sometimes certain people. And in the end, this sets us against each other. Fortunately, there are the poor in spirit who are open and ready to move forward, “a silent force of good that heals and sustains the world”- those who, like the God of Moses, see and hear the cries of people in bondage.

Lent is a time to act; in this special season, to act also means to pause, to pause in prayer to receive the word of God, to pause in action, like the Samaritan in the presence of a wounded brother: love of God and love of neighbour are inseparable.

Here again, the Pope challenges us. Since we’re on a synodal path, Lent should be a time for communitarian decisions, of decisions, small and large, that are countercurrent, capable of altering the daily lives of individuals and entire neighbourhoods. He even speaks of questioning our lifestyles: our buying habits, care for creation, and inclusion of the unnoticed and despised. He invites every community to re-examine its priorities. And as if by chance, I discovered his letter after reading the latest letter from our General Council (on the state of our finances), questioning our priorities and lifestyle.

To the extent that this Lent becomes a time of conversion, a stranded humanity will experience a burst of creativity: the dawn of a new hope. Here, the Pope reiterates his appeal to the young people during the World Youth Day in Lisbon in August 2023: “Keep seeking and be ready to take risks. At this moment in time, the challenges are enormous, the groans painful. We are experiencing a third World War fought piecemeal”. But, he adds, don’t live this time as an agony, but as a birth process.

Pilgrims of hope

This is the theme chosen by the Pope for the Jubilee Year 2025, strongly emphasising reconciliation. We just heard him tell us that our discouragement often stems from a lack of hope. Elsewhere, he even speaks of the weariness of hope, referring to people, particularly consecrated people, who no longer understand why they are so exhausted in a world of rapid change.

What can we retain from this jubilee theme for our Lenten journey?

This jubilee is also part of the synodal process.

Indeed, it’s all about pilgrimages and journeys. For Pope Francis, a Christian is a pilgrim who walks with others, searching for God’s will.

A pilgrimage is a journey, a people on the move. A Christian – let alone a consecrated person – does not establish himself in the comfort of the world. Jesus gave us the example of an itinerant life. He had no fixed abode, sometimes residing in the house of Simon and Andrew in Capernaum. The rest of the time, he travelled through villages and towns to proclaim the Good News.

What’s more, Jesus always respected the Jewish tradition of going on pilgrimage. As a child, at Passover, he went on a pilgrimage with his parents from Galilee to the temple in Jerusalem. The Gospel recounts how, at the age of 12, he remained in the temple while his parents were already on their way home. He stayed to deepen his understanding of his heavenly Father. This shows us that Jesus was not only looking for men and women but also looking for God, regularly taking time out to spend one-on-one time with his Father to be inspired about his mission.

One useful question we can ask ourselves as missionaries: do I see my life here on earth as a pilgrimage? For example, the life pilgrimage from birth to death. Or the journey of my faith and my commitment as a missionary, where from the beginning of my formation, from one stage to the next, I draw closer to the Lord and seek to belong to him fully. Or the pilgrimage of my apostolate takes me out of the comfort of my presbytery or house of formation to constantly set out to meet the people entrusted to my care. Speaking of synodality, Pope Francis says the encounter is “a time to turn towards the other person’s face and words, to meet them face to face, to allow ourselves to be touched by the questions of the sisters and brothers, to help each other so that the diversity of charisms, vocations and ministries may enrich us. As we all know, every encounter requires openness, courage and a willingness to let ourselves be challenged by the other’s face and story” (Homily, October 10, 2021, Vatican City).

In the dynamic of synodality, pilgrimage cannot be separated from encounter and thus becomes a path of hope and peace. The Lenten journey is a journey of liberation.

We are all invited to be pilgrims of hope during this Lenten season.

Pope Francis has often spoken of hope, urging us to look afresh at our existence, especially now that it is being subjected to the many trials of our world, and to look at it with the eyes of Jesus, “the author of hope”. He helps us overcome these difficult days, “confident that the darkness will be transformed into light “.

Indeed, it seems to me that when we have so many reasons to be pessimistic and so few signs of hope around us, it is in the certainty that the Lord accompanies us and will have the last word that we draw the strength and courage to continue to commit ourselves to our apostolates. Hope is a way of looking at reality with different eyes. This is what the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven in the dough tell us. Suppose we limit ourselves to media information, watching the news on TV or our smartphones, for example, these days. In that case, we are struck by the accumulation of ruins in the Holy Land, in Gaza, in Ukraine and in all the wars that continue in Africa. But if we consider in faith all the gestures of love, solidarity and sharing among our brothers and sisters, especially the poor, the efforts of Christians and consecrated persons to fight for greater justice and peace, and the confidence of all those young people in formation in our congregations who believe that a better future is possible, then our hope is nourished.

It’s up to us…

Whether we choose the image of the Exodus through the desert to free ourselves from slavery or that of the pilgrim of hope who, wherever he goes, shows people how much God loves them, the question for us at the start of Lent is: “Without getting dispersed in a flood of good but utopian resolutions that I won’t keep, is there any area of my life that I feel is a place of stagnation, fatigue, rumination, diminishing hope and the quality of my love?”. Pope Francis said that to act in Lent is also to pause. So, whether it’s a personal commitment or a community recollection (where we’re not afraid to talk frankly about the latest letter from the General Council), we must set ourselves a realistic and generous goal if we don’t want to be surprised on Palm Sunday morning when we exclaim: “Ah, is it Holy Week already?”.

Happy and fruitful Lent to all….

By: Bernard Ugeux (M.Afr.)

Pictures of the way of the Cross at St Francis Parish, Lilongwe, Malawi (2022)

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