The First Sunday of Lent has traditionally found me in a state of semi-denial, skirting the edge of the desert.
I’ve been invited to walk in with the Lord, but I’m still immersed in the landscape of my familiar life that more closely resembles a mossy forest crowded with trees — a life so full I cannot quite grasp all that is in it.
“Again We Keep This Solemn Fast” is a hymn of invitation to prepare him room.
Written by St. Gregory the Great, a pope in the late sixth century, the words are a gentle call to rouse ourselves and follow Our Lord into a time of fasting and penance, but also to embrace the loving movement of God in this season:
“Again we keep this solemn fast/ A gift of faith from ages past,/ This Lent which bids us lovingly/ To faith and hope and charity.”
The vocabulary here feels surprising. My Lents so often end up being worrisome, wearisome and gloomy.
But Pope Gregory reminds me of the dynamism of the season, calling Lent “a gift of faith from ages past,” a treasure handed down to us that will most certainly change us, a season that like Advent is charged with mystery and calls us to preparation.
I’m guided back to the Old Testament to rediscover how “the law and prophets from of old/ In figured ways this Lent foretold.”
The suffering servant passages of Isaiah come to mind and I’m reminded of the gentleness that exists alongside the strength to endure 40 days in the desert, for this is the Christ of whom it is said, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (Is 42:3). He comes to “those who live in darkness” (Is 42:7) to help reorient our eyes to light.
Here comes our guide through Lent and he comes to us kindly, not to break our spirit or to whip us into shape, but to draw us out of our familiar ways of being and doing.
Pope Gregory describes this season as one that “bids us lovingly/ To faith and hope and charity.” And lest the word “lovingly” catch us off guard, I’m reminded that the desert can be a place of sweetness.
It is here the Israelites received manna and came to recognize (even as they often forgot) God’s presence among them.
Perhaps after 40 years of sojourning, they, like the beloved in the Song of Songs, of whom it is asked “Who is this coming up from the desert/ leaning upon her lover?” (Song 8:5) could more readily lean on him and trust in his promises.
For me the word “lovingly” is the key to entering more fully into this season. The first couple times I looked at “Again We Keep This Solemn Fast,” I read “fast” as “feast.”
And though Lent may seem the exact opposite — indeed, the hymn calls us to be “more sparing” not only when it comes to food, but when it comes to “the words we speak” and “ev’ry sense” — this solemn season calls us, I think, to a different kind of feast.
It’s one in which by denying some goodnesses of life I make room for others, for God and his wondrous love.
By feasting on prayer, fasting and almsgiving, I make space for the cardinal virtues to blossom within me. By immersing myself more often in silence, I become better able to hear him and to keep “(my spirit), free/ From scheming of the Enemy.”
And this type of feasting brings rest in him, who I come to embrace more fully as my guide in this unfamiliar, unadorned space — the desert space of my own heart.
Weishar is a poet and freelance writer from the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois.
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