During Advent we get plenty of reminders from advertisers and television programs that Christmas is getting closer and closer. Some might say we get too many unwanted reminders! But Advent is designed by the church to build to a climax by Christmas Eve. The liturgical readings at the start of Advent are dominated by Old Testament prophets foretelling the coming of a distant Messiah. The suspense builds as John the Baptist comes on the scene on the Second Sunday, until by the final week of Advent we are already hearing parts of the infancy stories from the Gospels. There is an unbroken growing crescendo of expectation right through December 25.
Lent is a different story. First of all, we get virtually no help from our culture to help us remember that it's Lent (you can't really count the Easter candies that appear in February). But more importantly, the liturgical season of Lent has been designed with a very different dynamic: Lent begins with the fanfare and intensity of Ash Wednesday, marked by the powerful symbolic action of wearing ashes on our heads. But after the initial intensity, we settle down for the long six weeks and concentrate on staying faithful during the everyday sameness of our Lenten observances. The liturgical readings in Lent do not build up in a crescendo toward the celebration of Easter. In fact in the final two weeks they lead us inexorably "down" toward the sad, solemn, sober observances of Holy Thursday and Good Friday. On Holy Saturday the Church waits quietly at the Lord's tomb, meditating on His suffering and death: the altar is left bare and no masses are celebrated -- quite a contrast to the rich solemnity of Ash Wednesday at the beginning of the season. This is why it seems appropriate at this time of Lent to reflect on virtues such as hope, steadfastness and persistence. The meditations for the Fifth Week in Pilgrim Road are in fact organized around the theme of hoping.
The River of Life
One of my favorite chapters in Pilgrim Road is the one for Monday of Week Five, entitled "Lerins, France: Drinking from the River." From the first time I heard the story of the underground river that flows beneath the Bay of Cannes to bring life to the little monastery-island of Saint-Honorat and the Abbey of Lerins it has been an important image for me: God is the constant unseen source of my life and my strength, of everything I am and everything I do. No matter what trouble or chaos I may be experiencing, I can count on God's river of grace to keep running constant and clear, powerful and unseen, deep beneath the surface of my life.
Water is, of course, one of the central themes of Lent, not only because of the symbolism of crossing the Red Sea or finding water in the wilderness, but especially because of the "water of life" which will be blessed at the Easter Vigil when the catechumens are baptized.
Lent is a great time for removing any obstructions that I have put in the way of the stream of divine life. My negligence and sinfulness can keep the life-giving stream from reaching my spirit unhindered and pure.
Once again the original wider notion of Lent casts a new and positive light on fasting and penance: they are useful tools in this project of uncluttering the springs of living water. Almsgiving and works of charity are beautiful signs that the river is already doing its life-giving work -- signs as beautiful as those well-watered lavender fields on the island of Lerins.
Reflection: The hidden river of God's grace encourages and strengthens us during these later days of Lent. The Lord expects us not only to profit from the waters ourselves but also to find ways of passing the life-giving waters on to others by our loving deeds of generosity, compassion and joy. Can you think of one or two people whom the Lord may especially want to touch through you this Lent? Now think of some practical step you could take to respond to those expectations.