What is the meaning of Lent?

Here Fr Tom O’Reilly, the Regional Director of the Columbans in Britain, offers some answers arising from an experience in Pakistan.

There's a crack in everything and the light gets in

Fr Tom O’Reilly

When I arrived at a small chapel on the outskirts of Gujranwala, Pakistan, to celebrate Mass on the first Sunday of Lent I was surprised to see the place was practically empty. Eventually, I was told that the people were assembled in the house of Rashid, a parishioner, to support him in the rigorous fast he had begun on Ash Wednesday.

On investigation, I found Rashid solemnly seated on a raised platform before his house and surrounded by many admirers. He had decided not to eat or drink anything from sunrise to sunset for the 40 days of Lent and thus to prove that Christians could 'out-fast' Muslims, whose fast lasted only 28 days in the month of Ramadan!

I was sorely tempted to quote the words of Jesus: 'When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father . . .' (Matt: 6:17-18). I realized, however, that what Rashid was doing was but an extreme expression of a mentality many of us share. We have grown up with the idea that Lent is a time for increased effort on our part – doing more penance, saying more prayers, giving more alms.

We see Lent as a time to sort ourselves out and do some spiritual spring cleaning. There is some truth in this, but we often end up with the wrong perspective. We don't save ourselves, no matter how hard we try; the compassionate God saves us, without totting up our good deeds.

During Lent the main focus has to go on what God is doing for us, rather than on what we are doing for God.

Listening once to a Muslim speak about the meaning of the Ramadan fast for him helped me to look on Lent and its practices in a new way. He said the physical hunger he feels in fasting turns his attention to the deep hunger and great need for God in his life. Penitential practices like fasting can get us in touch with our human fragility, vulnerability and brokenness which hunger for an experience of God's salvation. To disciples of St John the Baptist who wondered why Jesus was not emphasizing fasting like their master, He replied that fasting is to be an expression of longing for his saving presence when he is taken from his own (Matt: 9:15).

Out of our vulnerability we express our longing for God in prayer. 'As a deer yearns for running streams, so I yearn for you my God. I thirst for God, the living God . . .' (Psalm 42:1-2).

In coming to the spiritual well, however, we meet the Lord who first thirsts for us. To the Samaritan woman who came to the well, Jesus introduces himself as a thirsty person (Jn 4:7). His physical thirst symbolizes his deep desire to give her the water of authentic life. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read, 'Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God's thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for him.'

God gifts us with the Spirit who 'helps us in our weakness' and 'intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words' (Rom 8:26). In being reminded that prayer is one of the traditional practices of Lent, I am conscious of my own feeble efforts in prayer. However, I find it helpful to recall that prayer is not something we do, but something God does in us. Our part is to tune into the ceaseless prayer of the Spirit in our hearts.

In our vulnerability we also offer ourselves to be channels of God's loving outreach to those who are most deprived and broken in our world. In today's harsh economic climate, people are understandably worried about keeping their job, paying their mortgage, protecting their pension, and securing the basic necessities of life.

However, the temptation is to adopt the mentality of 'every man for himself' and forget those who are most neglected in our world. To disciples worried about their day-to-day survival, Jesus spoke of giving alms and remitting debts as ways of making a heavenly investment which is rock solid (Lk 12:22-34). And the Lenten imperative of almsgiving calls us, not only to respond to urgent needs, but also to challenge the unjust systems which keep so many people in dehumanizing poverty and do irreparable damage to God's creation.

The liturgy refers to Lent as 'this great season of grace,' which is God's gift to us. It is the time when we open ourselves to experience God's salvation as pure gift. And God's point of entry into our lives is our vulnerability and brokenness. As Leonard Cohen sings, 'There's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in.'

Fr Tom O’Reilly was in Pakistan for 10 years and is now the Columban UK Regional Director.


Leonard Cohen singing Anthem:


The birds they sang
at the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don't dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be.
Ah the wars they will
be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold
and bought again
the dove is never free.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

We asked for signs
the signs were sent:
the birth betrayed
the marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood
of every government --
signs for all to see.

I can't run no more
with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places
say their prayers out loud.
But they've summoned, they've summoned up
a thundercloud
and they're going to hear from me.

Ring the bells that still can ring ...

You can add up the parts
but you won't have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
That's how the light gets in.
That's how the light gets in.