BY ANDY BARTON
On one of those cold, gray, afternoons this past February, I ran into a friend at a coffee shop who greeted me with a warning of her sour mood and explained that she was tired of the gloom. It was the perfect word for those weeks leading up to Lent. The darkness and cold of the season seep into our collective psyche and a pervasive gloom seems to settle into our daily lives.
Then comes Ash Wednesday: the beginning. Forty days that take us from the darkness into the light. It is easy to look at the Lenten transformation in terms of seasonal changes. The intoxicating arrival of springtime warmth and color corresponding with the Easter Triduum helps us apprehend the feeling of resurrection and hope. Yet, we are challenged to experience Lent more deeply than the change of season and to comprehend more than apprehend the meaning of these 40 days.
“Thus says the Lord,” we read in Isiah 58:9-14. “If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech; If you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; Then light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday.” These days of prayer and fasting are not intended for passivity but for the act of removing that in our lives and communities, which brings not the darkness of winter but the darkness in our souls. It is about how we care for our neighbor. As described in Zechariah 7:9-10, “Thus says the LORD of hosts: Judge with true justice, and show kindness and compassion toward each other. Do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the resident alien or the poor; do not plot evil against one another in your hearts.”
Lent is the season of justice and, as such, should be a time of great challenge. Seeking to remove oppression, false accusations, and malicious speech from our midst entails more than giving money or time to those less fortunate. We must do the hard and uncomfortable work of identifying the roles we play, often unwittingly, in either perpetuating or standing silent amid the systems that lead to oppression. This requires opening our eyes to the ways in which others are reduced to “something less” by virtue of reasons too many to list. It calls for us to consider the ways in which our economic systems may benefit one person at the expense of another.
If we seek justice, we ought to reflect on the ways in which we participate in making our communities more divisive through our “false accusations and malicious speech.” This is how we speak about our poor, our homeless, and migrants, but also about “others”- politicians from the other party, members of other faith traditions, and people with other personal beliefs. When we speak poorly of others, we give life to an increasingly divisive nation and world. Lent is a time to reconsider, refrain, and remove this speech not only from our own lips but also from our ears.
In this Lenten season, we speak of the true meaning of justice, not that which is either misunderstood or deliberately misused to validate ideologies or worse, to justify the degradation of human life. The justice that brings light to our world is fundamentally about service to others as opposed to retaliation for self. This justice dictates that we show kindness and compassion toward each other by ensuring that someone is not lacking while another has excess, whether it is money, food, access, or voice. True justice is about being in the right relationship with our neighbors, wherever they reside or are encountered. This may challenge us because it risks our own sense of security or comfort. That which we confuse for “fairness” when we mistake what is God’s for what is “mine.” Instead of giving up material things during Lent, we should rather give to others the excess that we may have fairly earned but are, nonetheless, needed more profoundly by someone else. This giving away is the essence of right relationship, of justice, and of Lent.
It has felt like a long, cold, winter but the real darkness is not born from the season. We read about the war in Ukraine and migrants at the border. We see our homeless camped in parks and our poor asking for spare change. The season of Lent has arrived none too soon to help us recall the days leading up to Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. His death gave life to the world. It was a radical change for the love of mankind. Only in sharing and acting on that love of our fellow humans will we lift the gloom. Then we will experience the fullness of Lent.
Andy Barton is the President and CEO of Catholic Charities of Central Colorado. This article first appeared in the Colorado Catholic Herald.