Lenten meaning extends beyond Easter - Catholic Courier
James P. Barry prays after going to confession March 26 atRochester’s Sacred Heart Cathedral. James P. Barry prays after going to confession March 26 atRochester’s Sacred Heart Cathedral.

Lenten meaning extends beyond Easter

Lent has come and gone, and with it our 40-day focus on prayer, fasting and almsgiving is now in the past. We’re free to raid our kids’ Easter baskets, gorge on desserts, resume a full slate of television viewing and savor steak on Fridays. No longer are we compelled to attend weekday Mass, offer extra prayers, attend faith-sharing groups, volunteer or donate to the poor.

Or are we?

On the one hand, Jeanette Housecamp reasoned that after 40 days of self-denial there’s a natural desire to indulge in some pleasurable pursuits that were put on hold.

"I think it’s OK at Easter to gorge a bit. It’s Easter, it’s a celebration," said Housecamp, director of faith formation and youth ministry at St. Michael Parish in Newark.

Yet ideally, Lenten sacrifice breeds a transformation that endures well beyond the Easter season, observed Deacon George Kozak. He contrasted this discipline with the reality television show "The Biggest Loser," in which people diet and exercise profusely to shed large amounts of weight.

"I read recently that after leaving the show, many of the contestants put the weight back on. It appears that the discipline that they have to endure while on the show does not carry on to their regular lives. Once they are no longer forced to work out all of the time and eat a restricted diet and have constant coaching, they fall back to their old pattern of living," said Deacon Kozak, who serves the northern Tompkins County cluster of All Saints, Lansing; Holy Cross, Dryden; and St. Anthony, Groton.

Catholics, he emphasized, should strive to avoid falling into a similar trap. "Just as putting on weight after losing it is not healthy, it is not healthy for us spiritually to go back and give up on those practices that helped us in Lent."

Avoiding the letdown

The days and weeks after Easter can be likened to any highly anticipated event such as a wedding or graduation, in which buildup and exultation is followed by a natural tendency to shift into lower gear. In a series of "Peanuts" comic strips in late 1969 Lucy complained of a "post-Christmas letdown," and conditions certainly seem to exist for a "post-Easter letdown" as normalcy returns following elaborate church services, family dinners and other festivities.

In cautioning against an excessive letdown, Deacon Kozak cited Matthew 12:43-45 in which Jesus tells of an unclean spirit that leaves a person and returns to find the person cleansed. The spirit then re-enters the person along with several other evil spirits: "The last condition of that person is worse than the first," Jesus says.

"We need to keep our focus on God," Deacon Kozak said. "Prayer, fasting and almsgiving should be our daily practice."

Yet how can we avoid slipping into a rut; how can we find ways to keep raising the bar with our Catholic faith, which charges us to commemorate Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection every day of the year?

Michael Sauter observed that Catholics don’t intentionally abandon their Lenten momentum, but may not know how to maintain it once they’re no longer guided by a specific set of tasks and activities.

"Lent seems so concrete and tangible in comparison with Easter, doesn’t it?" remarked Sauter, the pastoral administrator of St. Luke Parish in Livingston County.

"It is tricky," Housecamp acknowledged.

Sauter equated our dilemma with that faced by Jesus’ apostles, who struggled to grasp the reality of Christ being taken up into heaven and no longer being physically present to guide them, as depicted in Acts 1: "While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going, suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. They said, "Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven."

"It seems that," Sauter remarked, "like the disciples, we can point to the ‘body’ of the mystery of resurrection, and even touch it, but we can’t grab it, hold on to it or box it up. It’s the ever-receding horizon of faith."

Practicing resurrection

What we are able to do is "practice resurrection," Sauter suggested, quoting a famous phrase by writer and activist Wendell Berry.

In Mark 16, Jesus commissions the apostles with a mighty task — "Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature" — which they willingly do after his resurrection: "They went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs."

Just as the apostles entered a new phase of spreading the good news, Sauter said, our actions in this 40-day Easter season — and beyond the feast of the Ascension as well — hopefully will reflect a fresh dedication to our faith.

"To me, it’s like we’re given a new power or impetus, the power of the resurrection, but exactly how this is used is unique to each individual, as it involves their very self-realization and unique vocation, or calling," he said. "It doesn’t have that same sense of conformity of the group, concrete activities that seem to characterize Lent … it can only be learned and realized."

Housecamp said we can emulate the apostles’ example by recognizing our Lenten fasting and acts of prayer and kindness as the start of something permanent — something that will lead us to "change who we are and grow in our faith."

"The hope is that you are strengthened" by them, she added.

Corey Ginett agreed that Lent is "not about giving things up, but making a change." She observed that the knowledge of having accomplished this change can provide the spark for people to rise through adversity all year long.

"It makes them stronger to do other things — ‘I’ve done this for 40 days, I can go on to my next challenge,’" said Ginett, the youth minister at St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish in Sodus, Sodus Point and Ontario.

Ginett said young people in her parish don’t always immediately recognize the long-term significance of Lenten sacrifice, but do if they keep trying.

"They might not get it this year, but they’ll eventually get it," she said.

Meanwhile, Housecamp noted that practicing Lenten discipline can result in a conversion experience for people of all ages.

"No matter how old you are, you can change for the better," she said.

 

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