Lent’s top three can’t be separated

By | February 22, 2012

St. Peter Chrysologus, back in the fifth century, noted the tie between these Lenten three:


“There are three things, my brethren, by which faith stands firm, devotion remains constant, and virtue endures. They are prayer, fasting and mercy. Prayer knocks at the door, fasting obtains, mercy receives. Prayer, mercy and fasting: These three are one, and they give life to each other. Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one try to separate them; they cannot be separated. If you have only one of them or not all together, you have nothing.”

See, you can’t have one without the other two. We are reminded of these three pillars right from the start on Ash Wednesday. The liturgy offers us all three pillars in very physical ways:

n Prayer: Of course we pray at Mass. But we also bow, genuflect and make the Sign of the Cross. On Ash Wednesday, we also receive that Sign of the Cross on our foreheads. That black smudge should remind us that, during Lent, prayer is meant to be more intense and to turn our eyes and hearts back to God.

Prayer puts us in God’s presence. And there’s nothing difficult about it. As Jesus said, “Go to your room and close your door and pray.” God will be there, seeing and hearing.

n Fasting: Ash Wednesday is a day of fast for adult Catholics. During all the year, we are supposed to fast for a period of time before receiving Eucharist at Mass (the one-hour Eucharistic fast). During Lent, we fast more often. Part of this is in solidarity with Jesus who spent 40 days in the desert in fasting and prayer.

However, fasting is also a sign of repentance. The ashes of Ash Wednesday are meant as a sign of that repentance. In the ancient world, sitting in ashes signified sorrow and purification. Sitting in ashes also meant sitting in a burnt out cooking fire. So you didn’t eat; you didn’t wash; your clothes were a mess. Think of Job on his ash pile after he losing his family, his health, his property. A few weeks ago, on the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time (Jan. 22), we also heard how the entire city of Nineveh fasted and wore ashes as a sign of repentance before God.

Our own ashes are meant to show that we, like Nineveh, are ready to humble ourselves before God and repent the times we have not been very Christian. It also reminds us that we, and our world, are weak and in need of God’s help.

n Charity: Ashes and fasting can only do so much. By themselves, they are only signs meant to imply a change of heart that will lead to new actions beyond Lent. We can’t just stay in our rooms or our ash pits forever.

As St. Peter Chrysologus added, “Fasting bears no fruit unless it is watered by mercy. … Mercy is to fasting as rain is to earth. However much you may cultivate your heart, clear the soil of your nature, root out vices, sow virtues, if you do not release the springs of mercy, your fasting will bear no fruit.”

Like the ancient people of Nineveh, we are asking God for mercy during Lent and, in turn, we are called to extend that same type of mercy. Part of showing mercy is something we call alms.

We have a collection at every Sunday Mass and on many feast days during the year. As Lent begins, many parishes will also distribute paper “rice bowls” from Catholic Relief Services (www.crs.org) as just one suggestion of where to give alms – show mercy by giving of yourself — during Lent.

Charity is another way we imitate Jesus, not so much during his 40 days in the desert, but during the years that followed. His whole public life showed mercy (charity) in the way the prophet Isaiah spoke of after his own exiled people had returned home to Jerusalem in the sixth century B.C. Isaiah’s words are proclaimed on the Friday after Ash Wednesday:

“This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own” (58: 6-7).

See, even Isaiah emphasizes that you can’t have one without the other during Lent: prayer, fasting and mercy toward others can’t be separated. Last Ash Wednesday (2011), Pope Benedict XVI said the same, calling fasting and charity “the two wings of prayer.”

As we prepare to enter Lent, with prayer, rice bowls and ashes, remember that all three go together. If we want a fruitful Lent, we cannot separate out the labor of any of the three pillars of Lent.

And, never to be outdone, the Lord will do the same in our lives.

Sources: crossroadsinitiative.com; Catholic News Service; and “The New Jerome Biblical Commentary.”

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