For many of us, Lent is the season of gloom and giving up, of ashes and lashes. When it is gray outside, and purple inside. When we feel guilty about not feeling guilty.
I would like to accent the positive in Lent. On Ash Wednesday, we heard the Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the Gospel. The question is, how can we, the baptized, get people to believe in the Gospel?
So our agenda for Lent is to be good news. How do we do this? I am not going to suggest something complicated or obtuse. What I am suggesting is a simple act that we can all try, whether we are children or adults: every day of Lent, look to do the noble thing, no matter how small. Do the better thing, the nice thing, the small but kindly thing.
Let me give you an example. Whatever you think of Jimmy Carter as President, most would agree that he is a great man and a committed Christian. The former Vice President Hubert Humphrey died, and there was a large memorial service. Hundreds of people gathered for the service, among them the former President Richard Nixon. It was not long after Nixon had been forced to resign in disgrace because of the Watergate Scandal, and its memory was fresh in people’s minds. People mixed freely before the service, greeting old friends. Nixon, however, stood alone, isolated, shunned. President Carter came into the room, stood by the door and surveyed the room. He immediately saw what was going on, Nixon standing by himself at the edge of the room. Carter walked over to Nixon smiling his big smile, he greeted Nixon and said, “Welcome back to Washington, Mr. President. Welcome back. Why don’t you sit up front with me?” It was a Gospel moment. Embracing the outcast. A time of fulfillment. A small, simple, noble Gospel deed.
Many years ago when I was a student at Catholic University in Washington DC
Fr. Henri Nouwen came to give a lecture. Fr. Nouwen is best known for his many books about spiritual life, and had an unusual capacity to write about the life of Jesus and the love of God in ways that have inspired multitudes of people. Fr. Nouwen had dedicated much of his life to work with mentally handicapped people. At this talk, he had brought one of his mentally handicapped friends, Bill, up to the podium to help him with the lecture. Bill’s eyes started to get used to the lights, and he saw the large crowd. He got so nervous that all he could do was to lay his head on Fr. Nouwen’s shoulder and begin to cry. At that moment I with many others were reminded of the real purpose of being Church: it is not about budgets, building programs, fancy sermons or even devotions. As Church, our work is to stand next to one another and provide a shoulder to weep on. It was a Gospel moment.
When we do the noble thing, the Gospel thing, there is always a benefit not only to others, but it always changes us. At the Friar’s rehabilitation and drug and alcohol treatment facility, St. Christopher’s Inn, we once had a young client named Jeff. Jeff had been mandated by a judge to attend treatment. He was uncooperative and incorrigible. Normally a client such as Jeff would be asked to leave, but we decided to cut him some slack because if he left, he would have to go to jail. He continued being a problem client.
During the winter and some really miserable weather, it was decided that some people should make a trip to New York City to give out blankets to the homeless.
A Friar and five men went in the van to distribute the blankets. By some miracle, Jeff was included.
A large crowd of people who were living under a railroad bridge gathered around the van. After all of the blankets had been given out, the men got back into the van. Jeff was in the front seat next to the Friar; it had started to snow. When the Friar looked down, Jeff had no shoes on. The Friar asked him, “Jeff, where are your shoes?” Jeff replied, “I gave a man a blanket, but he had no shoes.”
It was a Gospel moment. From that time on, Jeff’s whole attitude changed. He started to cooperate with the program. Today he is a leading member of our Alumni Association.
During Lent, try to be a more noble person. Take some of your energy that goes into burnishing your exterior image, and build the interior life. Because of our baptism, we are called to bless. And Lent is a time to recall both how we are blessed, and how we bless others. And one day, when Jesus asks, who did you reach out to? Who did you help? It would be wonderful to be able to list a whole bunch of people.
Jesus, of course, will use other words, even though they mean the same thing. He will say, when I was hungry, you gave Me to eat, when I was thirsty, you gave Me to drink
When I was sick, you visited Me. The question I leave you with is, does that describe you?