On this Ash Wednesday, as we begin the holy season of Lent, in preparation for Easter, I'd like to share with you a theological meditation by our seminary's Director of Liturgy and Benedictine monk, Fr. Belsole:
God Triumphed in the Person of Christ
“The Joy of Minds Made Pure”: Reflections on the Lenten Liturgy
Kurt Belsole, O.S.B.
Pontifical North American College
February 8, 2016
"Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in his audience on Ash Wednesday of 2008 spoke of how the season of Lent is a time of spiritual retreat lasting 40 days which offers to the faithful the means to attain the true joy that comes from friendship with God. With that as a background, I would like to share with you some reflections on the liturgy of the Lenten season.
In the words of the Pope Emeritus Benedict:
Today, on Ash Wednesday, we begin anew, as we do every year, a Lenten journey animated by a more intense spirit of prayer, of reflection, of penance, and of fasting. We enter into a “strong” liturgical season, which . . . prepares us for the celebration of Easter, the heart and center of the liturgical year and of our entire existence . . . .
With the ancient rite of the imposition of ashes, the Church begins Lent as a great spiritual retreat that lasts for forty days. . . .
In its origins, in the primitive Church, Lent was the special time in which catechumens were prepared for the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist which were celebrated at the Easter Vigil. Lent came to be considered as the time to become a Christian, which takes place not in a single moment, but which demands a long journey of conversion and renewal. Those who were already baptized were joined to this preparation by reactivating the memory of the sacrament that they had received and by disposing themselves to a renewed communion with Christ in the joyful celebration of Easter. Experience shows that one is not happy because one satisfies one’s material needs and desires. In fact, the only joy that fills the human heart is that which comes from God: we need, in fact, infinite joy . . . .
The invitation of Jesus to take up one’s cross and follow him at first glance can seem to be harsh and contrary to much of what we want, something that puts to death our desire for personal fulfillment. But as we take a closer look at it, we can discover that it is not true. The testimony of the saints shows that in the Cross of Christ, in self-giving love, in the renunciation of the possession of one’s self, one finds that profound peace that is the source of generous dedication to one’s brothers and sisters, especially to the poor and needy. This gives us joy. The Lenten journey of conversion, which we undertake today with the whole Church, becomes, therefore, a propitious time, “the acceptable time” (2 Cor. 6:2) of filial abandonment into the hands of God to put into practice what Jesus continues to say to us: “If someone wants to come after me, let him renounce himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mk. 8:34).
We might at first be surprised that the Pope Emeritus Benedict refers to Lent as a great spiritual retreat, but in general terms, for the first 1,500 years of her existence, that was the only time of retreat that the Church knew. “Retreats” as we know them today came into vogue only in the 16th century, but even then, Lent continued to be the time of retreat for the whole Church. Lent, then, is the time when the Church as Church goes on retreat, with all her members as the one Mystical Body of Christ engaging together in prayer, fasting, penance, forgiveness, and almsgiving—and our observance of Lent is entered into with the same great fervor of what we usually call retreats. For forty days, we look to our models of Moses who saw God on Mount Sinai, of Elijah who walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, and of Jesus who after fasting for forty days in the desert emerged victorious over the evil one.
To see Lent as a time when we await the sacred paschal feasts “with the joy of minds made pure,” I would like to reflect with you on the Gospels of what is referred to as the “A-Cycle.” These three gospels were in place in Rome from the second half of the fourth century until the second half of the sixth century. Once infant baptism became a more and more frequent practice in Rome, these gospels were moved to the weekdays of Lent. But with the reform of the liturgy in Vatican II, they were restored to the Sundays of the A-Cycle, and are always used on the second, third, and fourth Sundays when the scrutinies of the RCIA take place.
Years A, B, and C, all have the gospels of the Temptation of Christ and the Transfiguration of the Lord as the gospels for the first and second Sundays of Lent. But when Year A occurs, we move as well into the three great Johannine pericopes of the Samaritan Woman (Jn. 4:5-42) on the Third Sunday of Lent, the Man Born Blind (Jn. 9:1-41) on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, and the Raising of Lazarus (Jn. 11:1-45) on the Fifth Sunday of Lent.
These gospels were proclaimed to the elect who were about to be baptized, but they were not addressed to them alone. As they were proclaimed in the eucharistic assembly on Sunday, they also reminded the faithful who were present of their own baptism and of the what the Lord had worked in them through the sacrament. Along with the preparation for baptism, the remembrance of baptism also belongs to the fundamental concerns of Lent.
In considering Lent as a joyful season, we might consider these gospels, and a glance at what might be called the kernel of these pericopes should be sufficient to indicate the motives for joy which they provided for not only those preparing for baptism, but for the faithful as well. The gospel of the Samaritan Woman presents Jesus telling her that if she had only recognized the gift of God and who was asking her for a drink, she would have asked him instead, and he would have given her living water (Jn. 4:10). More specifically, in regard to the gift of living water (aqua viva), Christ says that whoever drinks the water that he gives will never be thirsty, rather that water will become a fountain within him leaping up to provide eternal life (Jn. 4:14). The gospel of the Man Born Blind describes him giving his account of what Jesus had worked in his life. He tells those who were accustomed to seeing him begging, that Jesus had made mud, smeared it on his eyes, and told him to go to Siloam and wash there, and when he did wash, he was able to see (Jn. 9:11). The gospel of the Raising of Lazarus shows Jesus weeping at the death of his friend and being troubled in spirit as he approached his tomb (Jn. 11:35-38). After having assured Martha that if she believed she would see the glory of God, and after having prayed in thanksgiving to the Father, Jesus called out loudly, "Lazarus, come out." At that, the dead man came out bound hand and foot. Jesus told those around him to untie him and let him go free (Jn. 11:40-44).
Finally, on the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Sundays of Lent, it is noteworthy that the Communion antiphons for those Masses repeat the kernel of the gospel for that day, i.e., they present again, not to the elect who in patristic times were dismissed immediately after the homily, but to the community of the baptized, Christ as living water, light, and resurrection from the dead. On the Third Sunday of Lent, the Church proposes that, on their way to communion, the faithful hear repeatedly: "Whoever drinks the water which I will give him, says the Lord, will have within him a fountain of water springing up unto eternal life" (Jn. 4:13-14); on the Fourth Sunday of Lent: "The Lord rubbed my eyes, I went away, I washed, I was able to see, and I believed in God" (cf. Jn. 9:11); and on the Fifth Sunday of Lent: "Everyone who lives and believes in me will not die forever, says the Lord" (Jn. 11:26).
One notes that the author of these Mass formularies in the patristic period wanted the faithful who were approaching the altar for communion to meditate on the baptismal gospels which they had just heard. Furthermore, that same author appreciated the fact that the Lord who had completed baptismal initiation in the encounter of the newly-baptized with him in the Eucharist wanted as well to perfect it more and more in them throughout their lives. We see that in an ever deeper way, the faithful enter into the mysteries of Christ as they, in the Eucharist, mystically relive the dying and rising with Christ which they experienced in baptism. They are flooded anew with that living water which Christ has given them and which overflows unto eternal life. Again and again, Christ opens the eyes of the blind, and time after time the Lord's voice resounds where death seems to be triumphant and calls the dead to life.
In conclusion then, these Lenten gospels and communion antiphons from the patristic period, and now restored after Vatican II, show that both the elect and those already baptized were and are presented with interpretations of baptism as the gift of living water, which never needs to be repeated, and which wells up unto eternal life; the gift of sight to those who were born blind, but who came to see by washing at the command of the Lord; and the gift of life itself to one who had been dead, but who now was unbound that he might be free.
The experience of joy, as the attainment of our most noble desires, or as Preface I of Lent says, “with the joy of minds made pure,” and ultimately really our desire for God, runs through these gospel pericopes as well as these communion antiphons when we consider them in their liturgical context. The faithful, in the dialectic between "the already and not yet" of Christian sacramental life, enjoy that water which wells up to eternal life, that sight to those who were blind, and even life and freedom for those who were dead and bound.
Since, in the days before Vatican II, Sunday was not a day of fast, people sometimes treated it as if it were not a day of Lent, and that may even have carried over to our own day. It is helpful to recall explicitly, therefore, that although Sundays were not days of fasting, they were still days of Lent. Consequently, here as well, these were and are Sunday gospels, but no less Lenten gospels than those read during the week. In fact, because they were chosen for the day on which all Catholics gathered and still gather to celebrate the Eucharist, they were and are the Lenten gospels par excellence. For Catholics, therefore, as we look at these Sunday gospels, the liturgical experience of the Lenten season is characterized, not only by dealing with temptation and the passion of Christ, the gospels of the first and sixth Sundays, but also by transfiguration, living water, sight to the blind, and life out of death, as found in the gospels and the communion antiphons of the second, third, fourth, and fifth Sundays. How could it not be a joyful season?"