Exactly one year ago, the pandemic ended the weekly way of the cross and other Lenten activities that required in-person gathering at the parish of Betty O’Brien and her family.
This year, as another season of Lent is upon us, parishes remain closed, with only a limited and controlled number of parishioners allowed to attend in-person liturgies. Several parish activities, like most aspects of our social lives that required gathering with people outside our household, have moved to Zoom and other virtual platforms—including the process for preparing new members for full initiation into the church, one of the hallmarks of our Easter celebration.
Parishes and parishioners are dealing with these limitations in different ways. Some people preparing for RCIA may have decided to put it off until next year because of trepidation caused by the pandemic. However, overall parishes are working to create a pastoral presence that preserves the aura and meaning of the season of Lent and its significance in the life of believers despite restrictions.
The efficacy of any creative pastoral activity should be measured by how it leads believers to respond to the prophet Joel’s summons at the beginning of Lent to return (šhwb) to God (2:12) and gather people together so as to repair the individual and collective brokenness and mistrust in society.
The bid to strengthen our relationship with God and to allow the effects of our bond with God to animate and give life to our relationships with one another is what repentance means today. Repentance is an invitation to a change of mind (metanoeō) and taking the necessary steps to turn away from what has become sin or an aberration in our relationship with God and with one another (Isa. 58:1–11).
This repentance is similar to the Judeans’ change of mind after heeding the summons of John the Baptist to return to God, change the direction of their lives, and do good towards one another (Luke 3:10–14). At the Jordan, Judeans express willingness to turn around their outlook in life towards God and repair their relationships with one another.
Repentance is an invitation to a change of mind.
The Judeans’ disposition towards the message of John the Baptist prepares them for full participation in the plan of God, which Christ fulfills by his death on the cross, thereby drawing believers closer to God and to one another (Rom. 3:24–25). In Gaudete et Exsultate (On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World), Pope Francis reminds us that our Christian life is a mandate to reproduce various aspects of Jesus’ life of reconciling us with God by a life of conciliation and harmony with one another.
COVID-19 has exposed the widening social and economic gaps in our society with startling statistics of how vulnerable communities are adversely affected by the pandemic and sinking deeper into poverty.
The pandemic has brought to light jarring inequities: More families are going hungry, facing the threat of eviction, and sliding deeper into poverty. There is an increasing number of people finding temporary shelter in their cars, motels, or a friend’s living room. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, Black and brown populations are disproportionately experiencing homelessness in record numbers.
Through this lens, the symbolic Rice Bowl Campaign of Catholic Relief Services becomes an urgent act allowing repentance to be driven by love of one another so as to alleviate and the deepening indignity and inequality.
Encouraging individuals and communities to give to the needy and contribute to end the scourge of poverty, St. Paul exhorts people to link their faith in Christ with excellence in generosity (2 Cor. 8:7). Returning to God during this season of Lent means committing to close the gap in social and economic inequality that have driven so many children of God into inhumane living conditions.
Everyone has been affected by the pandemic, and it has exposed the unstable living conditions of many by ending their precarious lifelines. The grace to share our resources with those who have been far more affected comes from God (2 Cor. 9:8), who is our collaborator in this act of giving (Matt. 6:4).
Everyone has been affected by the pandemic, and it has exposed the unstable living conditions of many by ending their precarious lifelines.
To return to God is to support one another, especially those most affected by the hardships caused by the pandemic.
Turning our orientation toward God is also inspired by the ritual reminder of our common humanity before God: placing dirt on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday. This ritual, among others, calls to mind the fact that we are equal and all share in the same human conditions.
Our ritual celebration of Christ’s passion and death in the way of the cross further deepens our conviction that Christ died to save all, not just some. We are children of God by faith (John 1:12), and our membership in the household of God trivializes any kind of differences among us (Gal. 3:28).
Sadly, the pandemic has contributed to a diminished faith in one another as God’s children and consequently opened a Pandora’s box of racial tensions and the mistrust of public servants.
We are horrified by the revelation that more than half of Black and brown people infected by COVID-19 are dying from the virus, due in large part to preexisting health conditions worsened by their limited access to health care.
We also witnessed a summer of heightened racial tension that revealed and amplified the deep wounds of systemic racism, bigotry, and the dangers of nativism. The outrage across the country that followed the death of George Floyd has given rise to conscientization that must continue, especially among believers.
This is Christ’s wish: that we recognize the oneness of God’s children just as God and Jesus Christ are one.
To turn our mind towards God must include building bridges among the children of God and promoting social programs that celebrate our oneness. This is Christ’s wish: that we recognize the oneness of God’s children just as God and Jesus Christ are one (John 17:21).
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, COVID-19 has exacerbated our stress level. It affects every aspect of our lives, personal and interpersonal, and eliminated our coping skills, thereby turning every slightest provocation into a scene of violence. Frustrations, anger, and mental health challenges have turned our homes and streets into crime scenes in alarming proportions. Every major city has seen a spike in murder rates since last year. Children playing in the yards, sitting in their parents’ cars, or at birthday parties have been caught in the crossfire of violence.
Another kind of violence has emerged out of the vitriolic political discourse that fires up the embers of differences over and above how we are using our freedom and institutions to sow the seed of unity and concord. In the words of Pope Francis in Fratelli Tutti (Brothers and Sisters All), we should bear with the weaknesses of one another rather than use our freedom and institutions to incite hatred, resentment and violence; he further admonishes in Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) that we should denounce the forces of inequality that promote violence.
It is important to keep in mind that when Judeans went to John the Baptist at the Jordan seeking the path to an authentic repentance, they were responding to the prompting of God’s grace and the invitation to grow closer to God and to one another. They willingly accepted the invitation to return to God, and “produce fruits as evidence of their repentance” (Luke 3:8).
Likewise, our Lenten observances should both strengthen our relationship with God and produce the fruits of unity and concord among one another as an evidence of our repentance (1 John 4:16–17).
Image: Unsplash/Chris Montgomery