Lent and the Family
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Holy Mother Church is a very wise mother. She is determined that her children shall grow up. And it is in the manner of ushering us through spiritual childhood and into spiritual maturity that she designs her two penitential seasons. At Bethlehem, after a season of preparation through Advent, we must be as little children, simple, pure, full of faith, kneeling to adore the Child Who comes to be our King. With Lent, we reach the stage of the great growing up. We have rejoiced at the manger; we have seen Him manifest at the Epiphany; we have witnessed the spilling of His infant blood at the Circumcision; we have saluted Him as the light of the Gentiles at the Purification. Lulled into sweet security, we followed Him to Nazareth and the idyll of His growing up, unmindful that “I must be about My Father’s business” could have meaning for anyone but Him. We have attended the marriage feast at Cana, and warmed with the domestic quality of that miracle, we heard His mother say: “Whatsoever He shall say to you, do ye,” and were too blind, too complacent to hear in her quiet voice anything but a directive to a handful of servants. There is a jarring note on Septuagesima: “The groans of death surrounded me, the sorrows of hell encompassed me.” The Church warns—but we delay. There is time, there time—we will not go begging for trouble.
“Thou Art Dust”
And it is because, left to our own devices, we would live forever in the never-never land of procrastination, that the Church forces us to our knees on Ash Wednesday, and with a dirty smudge on the forehead repeats the brutal formula: “Remember man, thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.”
The last ironic words of God the Father to Adam, before He closed the gates of paradise, are our indictment: “Behold Adam is become as one of us, knowing good and evil…”
No one is excepted. Hear the words of the epistle on Ash Wednesday:
Blow the trumpet in Sion, sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly, gather together the people, sanctify the Church, assemble the ancients, gather together the little ones and them that suck at the breasts, let the bridegroom go forth from his bed and the bride out of her bride chamber…
A friend writes: “We could not get to Mass or devotions for the ashes, so we burned the palms and performed the ceremony at home. It is a strange feeling, kneeling there with your children and having your beloved say over you, 'Thou are dust…’"
No one is excepted. No husband, no wife, no child, no babe in arms, and unless we see ourselves first of all as souls bound for Heaven or Hell, then all the living and loving within the circle of the human family is merely dust begetting dust. Now, rudely, love must be recast, and the mother whose child is marked with a reminder of his corruptibility must remember that this fragrant flesh she loves so much will one day decay, this pulse be still, this body she nourishes and washes and clothes will end up as rattling bones in a box. All this is dust. Only the soul lives forever—living forever with God, or dying forever without Him. Now the mother for her child, and the husband for his wife, the sister for the brother, each one for each other, must desire one thing only and above all else for those they love—death rather than mortal sin. Christ died for us once, and redeemed us, yet we are still free to reject redemption. Only by dying to ourselves will we be safe in life in Him—so we must walk the way of His Cross and learn how to die.
Once again, with marvelous mathematics, Holy Church has telescoped the thirty-three years of life of the Son of God and is showing us how at last we forced His hand. Love, Who was born at Bethlehem, is grown—it is time we faced what we have done to Him. Each of us, at the beginning of Lent, is like the herdsman who rejoiced at the birth of the new lamb, who gathered it in his arms and crooned a thanksgiving that such a perfect beast should be born to his flock. Then, as the lamb grew in perfection and beauty, the season of the Pasch drew nigh. And slowly it dawned on the herder that the victim he must choose to sacrifice for his own sin must be this lamb that he loves. Now we, as he, must be filled with the same self-loathing—for we are about to slay the lamb we have loved.
The family is a religious community of its own kind, and the fruitfulness of its life together will be the more abundant, the more it lives this communion, corporately celebrating the great feasts and the great fasts, corporately applying restrictions, mortifications, to the whole family as well as to each individual. So it is with gratitude that the family must respond to the Church when she commands us to carry the Cross during Lent. The mortification of desserts, the darkened television set, the silent radio, the absence from public entertainments—every family will know which is its particular indulgence and in what lies the most perfect renunciation. Grace works—and mercifully many a family will discover in the effort to fill the void left in entertainment less evenings, that the adventures of Francis and Dominic, Damien and Therese, all the others, are a formidable threat to Hope and Berle. Tracing the history of sacrifice through the Old Testament can be challenging to agile minds as bridge and canasta, with a far greater reward—a new and more profound understanding of the Mass.
Because the outstanding individual faults within the family are no secret anyway, there is nothing quite so well-calculated to encourage the mortification of individual faults as a family conclave where, without coercion, each one willingly admits his flaw above all other flaws, undertakes to mortify it during Lent, and asks the others to help him with their prayers and their patience. I shall not forget for a long time the corporately held breath in this family when mother announced that she would try with all the grace at her disposal not to raise her voice during Lent. Well they know the effort this will take! But in a rush of generosity to match this excruciating discipline, each in turn admitted to his greatest weakness, until father outshone all with his determination not to roar, not even to moan, when morning mayhem disturbs his sleep.
Fruits of Fasting
Six weeks, however, is a long time to persevere in the business of penance and sacrifice, so it helps the children and grown-ups alike if there is some tangible evidence of accomplishment. In the first Lenten Gospel, Our Lord speaks of the fruits of fasting as treasure laid up in Heaven—a wise place to lay your treasure, He says, for where the treasure is, there is the heart also. So each of these professed mortifications, as well as all the small, secret mortifications to be added to them, can be counted out in beans, and watching the store of beans in a jar grow from day to day gives many a fainting heart the courage to ensure. Beans are a particularly nice symbol because they are small seeds which, buried in the earth to die, will bring forth much fruit, and if the beans are dyed purple, they look fittingly penitential.
If it is impossible for the family to attend daily Mass during Lent, then the prayers of the Mass can be part of daily devotion at home, either before grace at the principle meal, or woven in with the evening devotions. But it is in the Stations of the Cross that each one will find his most poignant source of inspiration, although here again, especially for children, there must be more than just an endurance of bobbing up and down and repeated formulas. A wedding of the Stations with the drama of Tenebrae helps to plumb the depth of His sorrow and abandonment, and all that is needed is the indulgenced Crucifix, pictures of the Stations, and thirteen candles in a homemade candelabrum. Twelve candles are lit at the beginning and as each Station is passed a candle is extinguished, until with the twelfth Station the last candle is snuffed out and we watch Him taken down from the Cross and laid in the tomb with the full sense of the darkness which spread over the world. All during the long weeks of enduring the Passion with Him, the thirteenth candle is left unlit, then Holy Week it is decorated as the family’s Paschal candle, complete even with five small cloves, like the little pegs of incense that stud the Paschal candle to be burned on the altar. Holy Saturday, at high noon (Editor’s Note: this was written before the reform of Holy Week from 1951-1956, which restored the Holy Saturday service to the evening) in the joy of triumph, the Paschal candle is lit and it burns at the principle meal thereafter through the Feast of Pentecost.
The House Speaks of Lent
The house, too, must speak of Lent, so the mantle is stripped of all adornment and the Crucifix alone is a stark and lonely reminder of what we are about these forty days. Even the bread speaks of Lent, with crosses of poppy seeds or sprinklings of caraway, because seed has always been the symbol of that death which goes before resurrection to life. And pie crusts, too, speak of Lent, with steam and juices escaping from vents that form the Crown of Thorns, or the nails and the spear; blessed with holy water, the Lenten bakings are placed in the oven and fire, like the ordeals of the flesh, brings them to perfection.
All the outward symbols are important because we need to keep before our eyes tangible reminders of the terrible price with which our Beloved bought us. But they are meaningless if they do not move the soul to an ever deeper understanding of the Cross, an ever deeper desire to embrace it. And it is the frustration of a soul tucked away in the humdrum surroundings of domestic life to observe that nowhere within reach is there anything that can really match His agony of scourging and crowning, hanging and dying. With exquisite envy, one would wish to be dying for HIs sake in some far-off prison, or driving down a road at the hands of some Red mob. What has a kitchen, a nursery, a laundry to offer that will match the road to Calvary? Nothing—because nothing will ever match that, but we are placed where we are because He has designed a Calvary for us out of such mundane things as these, and He says to us: “Die here—and you will find Me.”
Death to Self
To a young wife there is a death to fastidiousness in the hands with which she scours a greasy sink and picks up the loathesome garbage collected over the drain. To a husband there is death to the senses as he retches over the cleaning of his wife’s garbage pail. There is death to a child when he silenty accepts the abuse of children in a schoolyard and refuses to run and tattle; and there is death to a teen-ager who, in the face of her scandalized friends, foregoes wearing lipstick during Lent. Saint Therese ate with a dirty spoon when it was laid at her place. Damien loaned his pipe to the lepers. Mother Seton drank coffee made of dried carrot shavings. This, too, is the Cross. Because this is the most secret of all the deaths—this is the dregs. Horrible, nasty, revolting, humiliating—death comes in little ways daily, in silence, in endurance, in grinding, uninspired effort, in all the things we don’t want to do, the particular things He has given us to do. It is this hodgepodge of distasteful, sometimes even ridiculous, things that we can fit together to make a Cross.
We can rededicate ourselves in humility and self-abasement by imitating Our Lord when He washed the feet of His Apostles that Holy Thursday night, before the Last Supper. There are few acts more profoundly moving for a mother and father than to kneel before each of their children with a basin and a cloth, wash their feet and tell of how Peter, always so impulsive in his professions of love, begged that if washing his feet was to be a sign of union with Christ, then not only his feet must be washed, but his head and his hands also.
And Good Friday is the time for silence. This is easier if the family has practiced silence for at least five minutes daily al during Lent (and even five minutes is difficult for children together). Then it can be a part of our sharing His Passion during the long hours from noon until three, and that hour will strike with each one understanding more poignantly than ever before that now “it is finished.”
The Reward of It All
Would that Holy Saturday had twice the hours of any other day, there is so much to do. First, Mass, (Editor’s Note: After the reform of Holy Week there was no Mass on Holy Saturday morning) then home to set the Easter coffee cakes and decorate the eggs, with all the symbols of the Resurrection, not forgetting that each member of the family must have an egg decorated with the symbols of his patron saints. And finally, most exciting of all, the jar of sacrificial beans plays its final part in the culmination of forty days dying. The beans are poured out and divided equally, and each portion is poured in a small gold sack (the kind you find at the five-and-ten with chocolate coins inside)—and here is the symbol of the treasure stored in Heaven. Later that night, when the children are asleep, these will be tied to small gifts so the significance of reward is unmistakable, and tucked in Easter baskets ready for the great egg hunt Easter morning.
Because there is the probability that Easter morning the excitement of Mass, the festive breakfast, hunting for eggs, all the rest, will make such an overpowering claim on everyone’s attention, the story of the last glorious act of the Redemption must be told the night before—the sad procession of the holy women at dawn, their fear at the empty tomb, the shattering announcement of the angel: “He is not here—He is risen! And poor Mary, the Penitent, still unable to understand, walks in despair in the garden wondering, “Where have they taken my Lord?” It is with terrible significance that we understand at last why He should appear to her first—the Lamb, sacrificed for sinners. I have seen children, all ready for bed, sit silently and listen to the story of that sublime moment, and when He turned, looked at her, and said, simply, “Mary…,” I have seen their eyes wet with tears.
It is one of the marks of achievement in an age of progress that the Feast of the Redemption is marked by more empty heads under fancy hats, than overflowing hearts before an empty tomb. But if Lent, for the Christian family, is a deliverance and not merely an endurance, Easter will be celebrated in the name of the triumphant Christ, and not in the name of the triumphant milliner. Easter is not new clothes, not eggs, not bunnies, not baskets—but the risen Christ, Who has thrown open the gates of Heaven so once more sinners are free.
Excerpted from Integrity, Vol 6, No. 6, March 1952
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