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Fr. Leo J. O’Donovan sits with Jack, a refugee, who sings him a song in Kibera, a slum of Nairobi, Kenya.

Lent is obviously a penitential season. Priests wear purple vestments. Statues in churches are covered. And from the 6th century through to the Tridentine missal and up until 1969, the Gospel for Ash Wednesday was Mt 6.16-21, which emphasized fasting and encouraged Christians to store up for themselves treasures not on earth, but in heaven. In 1969 the Roman Rite revised that reading to Mt 6.1-6, 16-18, which speaks more fully not only of fasting but also of righteous deeds, almsgiving, and prayer—a threefold prescription on how to observe the forty days to come. 

The revision was slight, perhaps, but clearly intended a broader view of Lent. That sense was even more apparent in the wonderful new Second Preface, which addressed the Lord our God by saying: “Each year you give us this joyful season to prepare to celebrate the Paschal Mystery with minds and hearts renewed.” (Some of this tone, but unfortunately not much, survives in the language of the current revised translation.) 

“But what does such liturgical nicety mean to us?,” you might well ask. And the answer is: a great deal. For Lent is a time to focus above all not on our journey but on accompanying Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem. Of course the way profits from our learning how to direct our lives more graciously. But we do that best when we long to be ready for the coming of God in the great mystery of eternal life born from sacrificial death through the living and risen Jesus. 

And who is the Jesus whose Paschal Mystery we are preparing to celebrate? It is not Jesus an isolated individual for whom resurrection is an individual reward and singular honor. It is rather Jesus “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep,” as St. Paul says (1 Cor 15.20). It is Jesus who is brother to us all and into whose mystical body we are called to belong. In this sense then, the celebration of Lent, with all its practices, is a celebration of solidarity, the promise and project that all God’s sons and daughters—all, without exception—are meant for union with God and in God with one another. 

In January of this year, celebrating a Mass for peace and justice in Santiago, Chile, Pope Francis dwelt on the first words of fifth chapter in St. Matthew’s Gospel: “When Jesus saw the crowds….” The Pope suggested that in the gaze of Jesus the people encountered “the echo of their longings and aspirations.” That encounter gave rise to the Beatitudes, “born of the compassionate heart of Jesus” and a horizon toward which we are all still called today. In proclaiming the Beatitudes, the Pope continued, Jesus “shakes us out of that negativity, that sense of resignation that makes us think we can have a better life if we escape from our problems, shun others, hide within our comfortable existence, dulling our senses with consumerism.” Such a “sense of resignation,” he warned, “tends to isolate us from others, to divide and separate us, to blind us to life around us and to the suffering of others.” Put positively, the Pope was calling us to solidarity with our fellow human beings, and especially with the poor and those in greatest need. 

It is not hard to identify those poor, 65.6 million of whom are refugees or internally displaced people—driven from their homes and communities and schools and often, as well, their very parents. How can we really live “this joyful season” without caring in some way for them?

Fr. Leo J. O'Donovan is JRS/USA's Director of Mission. This reflection was originally printed in "Renewing Welcome" A JRS/USA guide for reflection, prayer and action during lent. Click here to download the full publicaiton.

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