The season of Lent begins just as we have watched in horror the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As the world watches evil unleashed upon the forces of democracy in a European country, it seems somehow fitting that Christians move into a penitential season.
Unlikely heroes are emerging. News reports show a white-haired woman in her 60s, nails well-manicured and lacquered, practicing firing a large rifle to help defend her country. The president of Ukraine, a former comedian, told the U.S. when they offered to evacuate him, “I need ammunition, not a ride.”
UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY SITS FOLLOWING AN INTERVIEW WITH REUTERS IN KYIV, UKRAINE, MARCH 1, 2022. PHOTO: UMIT BEKTAS, REUTERS / CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE
As I write this, Volodymyr Zelenskyy is still alive and fighting. Pray God, when you read this, he will still be the president. But we know the Russians have him and his democratic government in their sites.
How does this affect our Lenten journey, and how, perhaps, can our Lenten journey affect the world’s brokenness?
To a Christian, these questions can never be separated. We’ve been called to bring the kingdom of God, never to hide away solely in our own world of religiosity and private devotion.
In the February days leading up to Lent, many of the daily readings were from the Letter of James. Many of the readings struck me as important and bold, and I decided to read more of James.
The letter, only five chapters, is full of practical advice: We should be quick to listen and slow to speak, James says. That in itself would be a worthwhile Lenten endeavor.
He impresses on us that a faith not expressed in good works is no faith at all. And he challenges us to think about class distinctions: James asks us to imagine “if a man with gold rings on his fingers and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and a poor person in shabby clothes comes in.” We might envision our own Sunday Mass congregation.
How are the two treated, James asks. Such a simple question, and yet one that we all should ask ourselves. Who is given the best seat at table, in our society, in our own lives? James’ letter is very hard on the rich.
We make plans for our lives, James says, but much like the Ukrainians who went on about their lives calmly in the days before the invasion, we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. “You,” James writes, “are a puff of smoke that appears briefly and then disappears.”
This may be a somber thought, but each of us goes the way of all flesh, and Lent offers us the opportunity to contemplate what we are doing with this brief but precious time we have been given.
In his famous poem, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “What I do is me: for that I came.”
Our actions prove who we are, more than any fine statements or boasts, more than our degrees, our accomplishments, our riches.
Who are we? We ask Jesus to help us answer this question during Lent. Why did we come?
I think of President Zelenskyy, a young man in his 40s, a performer in his early life. Now, he has become the focal point of resistance to an evil assault affecting millions of people in his country, and perhaps beyond. This, perhaps, is the moment for which he came. Meanwhile, Jesus invites us to draw nearer. By deepening our prayer, extending our charity, perhaps to Catholic Relief Services’ humanitarian efforts in Ukraine, and strengthening ourselves with penance, perhaps we can better answer the question Jesus asks: Why did you come?