For many believers, Lent started like it always does: people remembered Lent was coming and they started brainstorming possible Lenten disciplines. Fat Tuesday rolled around and eventually gave way to Ash Wednesday. Various social media accounts went “purple” and informed their friends and followers that they were going to be away for the season. People decided to pray more, to attend daily mass, weekly adoration, or Stations of the Cross.
This Lent started out normal, but has become rather extraordinary. Many Catholics now face the possibility of the rest of Lent and even Easter are “canceled”. Public Masses and liturgies have been postponed indefinitely. Religious education classes have been postponed or modified. Direct service to others is impossible when you cannot get within six feet of someone. The virus and the drastic measures to try to contain its spread have upended daily life and Lenten disciplines in particular.
But, there is a fittingness to this extraordinary time occurring in the midst of one of the Church’s extraordinary seasons. On the Church calendar, most of the year is designated as Ordinary Time, denoted by green priestly vestments. “Ordinary” according to the Church does not mean mundane or boring, but simply means normal practice of discipleship. Ordinary Time of the Church is bounded by and infused by the extraordinary seasons of the Church like Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. The special events and practices of these seasons are supposed shape the ordinary times of the Church.
Lent is considered a time set apart, a chance to take stock of our life following Christ. Christians are called to practice the three pillars of discipleship, namely prayer, almsgiving, and fasting, with special devotion. This time of preparation corresponds to Jesus’s own time of preparation in the desert. Before embarking on His public ministry, Jesus was tempted in the desert by Satan. Christ’ time set aside for prayer, fasting, and wrestling with the Devil allows Him to enter into His normal ministry of miracles and preaching, which are of course oriented towards His Extraordinary Passion and Resurrection. The ordinary mission of Christ is shaped by His time of preparation for His decisive action of achieving the world’s Salvation.
This extraordinary Lent imposes this desert upon us. Like Christ, we must respond to this desert with intensity and to make this time set-aside more definitive for our discipleship. We cannot rely on our usual Lenten practices to get us through. We are invited to strip away attachments to external trappings and to rely on Christ more fully. Our God is a God of secrets, who sees the secret prayers and alms of His faithful ones. He rewards those who heed His call with an invisible, heavenly treasure rather than an earthly goods. This time of disruption in our world starkly reminds us of our Christian duty during Lent to enter into preparation so that we may store up treasure in heaven.
Our Lenten disciplines might have already been altered, but that does not mean we cannot adopt new ones or modify your disciplines to fit these new circumstances. You might not be able to get to a church for prayer or Mass, but now commit to giving that planned time to praying at home especially with the Holy Scriptures. Maybe you must eat that food you were giving up, but now try to consume other resources less. Maybe you cannot serve at the soup kitchen or other charity for the foreseeable future, but maybe now you can call older members of your parish to check up on them or organize delivering groceries to immune-compromised persons in your community.
In Lent, we are all called to reorient our lives around our Salvation in Christ. We must remember that our time on Earth is preparation for the endless joy of eternal life with the Holy Trinity. Lent’s focus prayer, fasting, and almsgiving is supposed to carry through Easter and the rest of our lives. We do extraordinary disciplines to train ourselves to live better lives of discipleship all year round. Lent invites us to join Christ in the desert so that we can join Him in His ordinary ministry and His Extraordinary Resurrection. Even amongst the seeming chaos of this current moment, we must not lose sight of the extraordinary opportunity of the Lenten season. Instead, we should use this time to recommit ourselves to drawing closer to God. This time of extraordinary distress calls each of us to strive for extraordinary devotion and faith. Let us not let this challenge go unheeded.