An important lesson that I learned about Lent actually came from a Jewish friend. While working at Purdue University, I served under Dr. Robert Ringel, a devout man who approached his religious observances with deep care. In the first year that I worked for him, he came into my office to seek forgiveness for any wrong he may have done me. This was part of his preparation for Yom Kippur, a high holy day for the Jewish people and a day of atonement for sins against God and his people.
Bob Ringel's act of contrition reminds me that Lent, our spiritual journey from death to life, is communal in nature. We cannot make good with God without making good with neighbors; our offenses against them are offenses against God. Jesus taught repeatedly (in Mark 11:25 and Matthew 6:14-15, not to mention the Lord’s Prayer) that forgiveness from God calls for recognition of our own sinfulness. Genuine repentance opens our heart to the wrong we do others and the self-righteousness with which we bind them.
Our transgressions are not only personal in nature, as Pope Benedict noted in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), but are also embedded in political and economic systems that leave people without the necessities for human dignity and flourishing. In the penitential rite at the beginning of Mass, we confess not only to almighty God, but "to you, my brothers and sisters."
Catholic Relief Services’ annual Lenten program, CRS Rice Bowl (crsricebowl.org), facilitates prayer, fasting, and almsgiving by bringing God and neighbor into our daily Lenten offering. Pope Francis writes in his Lenten message, "In imitation of our master, we Christians are called to confront the poverty of our brothers and sisters, to touch it, to make it our own and to take practical steps to alleviate it." Each week, through videos and different teaching resources, CRS Rice Bowl showcases one country (for example, Guatemala) struggling with a specific challenge (child labor) to bring a person, a family, or a community along with their struggles and hopes into our homes.
As we would with friends and relatives, we can listen to their stories, pray for them, and share our meals and blessings. We are invited to prepare a meatless dinner like the ones they would have. This year, we launch the CRS Rice Bowl phone app that delivers a daily prompt for prayerful reflection at the time we designate. It also enables us to choose an item we would sacrifice for the day, records its price, and keeps a running tally through the 40 days of Lent.
While CRS tries to make the Lenten experience as accessible as possible, we should remember Pope Francis' words: "Lent is a fitting time for self-denial; we would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others with our own poverty. Let us not forget that real poverty hurts; no self-denial is real without this dimension of penance. I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt."
For more reflections in our Lenten series, click here.
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Image: Illustration by Angela Cox