Lent begins next Wednesday, February 14th. Some years ago a publisher asked me to write a book entitled A Lenten Journey with Jesus Christ and St. Paul of the Cross, to be part of a series of reflections on the daily lenten gospels that included thoughts of saints of different religious orders. The book has just been translated into Japanese.
I was initially skeptical about the project. From early on I’ve seen lent as a time to give up something and take up some devotional practice like the Stations of the Cross. Yes, Lent was a journey with Jesus, and I appreciate the daily scriptures that take us through the season with him, but where does a saint come in, even a saint important to me, like St. Paul of the Cross, the 18th century founder of my community the Passionists ?
Working on the book made me see lent differently. First, for St. Paul of the Cross lent was a time to leave the quiet mountain at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea where he lived and prayed and go to work in the Tuscan Maremma, then a swampy, malaria infested region of Italy, overrun with robbers and desperately poor. All through lent, carrying a cross and a bible Paul went from village to village preaching God’s love to people whose lives were often on edge with fear and lost hope.
Lent isn’t a time for turning inward, away from world you live in, Paul reminds me. Lent is a time to go out to the wounded world before you.
Secondly, Paul engaged his world, the world of the Tuscan Maremma, in the light of the gospel, especially the Passion of Jesus Christ. For him that mystery was not limited to a time long ago, when Jesus suffered on a Cross; it was there in the people before him. From village to village, he held up a Cross to anyone who would hear as a mirror of their reality and a pledge of the great mercy of God. Jesus died and rose again.
The Passionists celebrate two feasts immediately before Ash Wednesday to prepare for Lent. Last Friday we celebrated the Commemoration of the Passion of Jesus Christ. Tomorrow, Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, we celebrate the Prayer of Jesus in the Garden. Both feasts come from our missionary founder.
I can see him packing his bags for his lenten journey down the quiet mountain for the villages and towns of the Tuscan Maremma. He must remind himself what he will see. He must pray so he doesn’t forget.
“May the Passion of Jesus Christ be always in our hearts.”