A different way to observe Lent

Cambridge, MA. I am still pondering how I might put together a coherent sequence of posts for the Lenten season—several years back I turned to the Yoga Sutras, and last year to the Bhagavad Gita—but as I figure that out, I cannot help but post a few comments on the first reading for the first Sunday of Lent in this year “C” in the three year cycle: namely, this beautiful testimony from Deuteronomy 26, part of Moses' long instruction:

A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me (26.6-10).

In itself, this is a beautiful testimony to Israel’s remembrance of God’s promises, how the community was protected from generation to generation. We have no right to close the borders, stop our ears against the cries of the poor; we are no different from those in dire need today. Hearing these words at Mass confirms for us that this is our history too; we too are the wanderers, the outsiders and immigrants, those who have over history at times been oppressed, deprived, in need of liberation.


The context—26.1-15—shows us that this is also a ritual moment. It begins with the instruction to realize that we have come into the promised land flowing with milk and honey, now gifted with an abundance of the fruits of the land:

When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, 2you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name (26.1-2).

We take up a portion of all that God has given us, and bring it to our familiar place of prayer, and present it to the Lord. Then we make the confession, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…” But Moses—the speaker in this and most chapters of Deuteronomy—is not done, since further instructions follow, as to what to do with those gifts of the earth. First, we are to share these gifts:

Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house (26.11).

Celebrating the Lord’s bounty: an interesting and profound way to celebrate Lent.

Indeed, in the year of the special gift (the tithe), we are to share all we have received, “giving it to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns.” (26.12) And then return return yet again to the Lord, in the place of prayer, and confirm that we have shared our gifts, the abundance of what God has given us and (in words that seem aimed at the technicalities of pious customs of ancient Canaan and Israel) promise that we have not diverted the gifts to rituals and customs that would deprive the Levites and resident aliens, the orphans and the widows. The instruction closes with a further prayer:

I have obeyed the Lord my God, doing just as you commanded me. 15Look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the ground that you have given us, as you swore to our ancestors—a land flowing with milk and honey (26.14-15).

I suggest that the reading stands as an instruction for the beginning of Lent, an invitation to observe this Lent differently than usual. We are accustomed to focus on the Gospel—today from St. Luke—on Jesus in the desert, in prayer and fasting, and in rejecting the allures of Satan, and we are accustomed to structure our Lenten practice around that primal desert sojourn. Rightly so, but this year Deuteronomy offers another model worth trying: remember in detail all the promises of God that have come true, for me, for my family and loved ones, for our church and nation; gather up these gifts, promises fulfilled, protection given, and bring them before the Lord in an act of thanksgiving repeated each day in Lent; and figure out, as Lenten practice, how to share those gifts with the community of the church, and with the poor, the outcast, the marginalized. The hungry, lonely, broken-hearted, exiled, need not wait until Lent is over.

There is of course much more to be said, on the historical background of the text, the nature of the offering, the implementation of this practice in the history of Israel; there is much to be said about what is not ok in our lives, about things gone wrong and not redeemed, about prayers unheard and promises unfulfilled; and there is much to be pondered regarding what is not said at all, if we see here an ancient historical record: what about the Canaanites, for instance, whose land has now from taken from them and given to the children of Israel? Save all of that, return to it when you can.

But for this Lent, consider simply doing what Deuteronomy 26 asks of us: remember what God has done for us, bring those memories to the Lord in thanksgiving, and then share the gifts with those in need, near and far.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Bruce Snowden
2 years 10 months ago
A response to Fr. Clooney's Lenten suggestion. As for me when it comes to REMEMBERING what God has done for us, takes me back to the moment of “enlightenment” I mean to that moment when God said “Let there be light.” Energized by light multiple aspects of materiality began their evolutionary journey into productiveness that eventually filled our Common Home with every kind of creature and appropriate sustenance, each endowed with the capacity to recognize their portion, but prepared especially for homo sapiens who would in time join evolution’s pull to completion, from merely instinctive, to cognitive excellence. Animate creation maintains instinctive skills in varying degrees. For example who taught an infant to rub its eyes with the back of its hand, opposite to fingers side? The child is born with that instinctive knowhow as I have observed. The overall just discussed frame, would be recognized as an ongoing, still in progress, unfinished creation, everlastingly productive. So in Lenten remembrance I say to God who even now spins universes off his fingertips, “Bless us O Lord and these Thy Gifts which we have received, now receive, and shall receive by Thy Bounty through Christ our Lord, Amen.” The next reality I want to especially REMEMBER thankfully this Lent has to do with God’s entrance into human history through the call of Abram and the entire Covenant history of Israel, to teenage Mary’s Incarnation affirmation, “Be it done unto me according to Thy Word.” And the Church was enfleshed therefrom. I especially want to remember thankfully its Sacramental Character, in which we become with Christ, priest, king, prophet, Seven Signs of wonder and awe instituted by Christ to give Grace, even his Body and Blood. Such love! Truly, God never loves halfheartedly, but always entirely and without reservations. So much unlike me! I have a hard time sinking my teeth into the reality that God’s love for me is not wishy-washy. So total is it that if I were the only person needing Redemption, God Jesus would have endured Calvary just for me! As I said, I have a hard time sinking my teeth into such incredible love. But come to think of it, I do exactly that every time I receive Eucharist – I sink my teeth into Incredible love! Thank you Jesus . My job this Lent will be to somehow joyfully acknowledge what God has given me, (so much more not mentioned) sharing it thankfully. This linked to what I have already promised to do for Lent – hand myself over to the Father trustingly. This is going to be a Lent not so much of “Giving Up” as it will be “Giving In,” that is, forgetting self while remembering others. May the Grace of God rocket me over and around the boulders of selfishness, to a safe landing on the only boulder that matter, “the Stone rolled back” understanding that in service I truly become a Resurrection person with Alleluia my song!


The latest from america

Women served as deacons in Europe for about a millennium in a variety of ministerial and sacramental roles.
Brandon SanchezJanuary 15, 2019
In preparation for the gathering in Abu Dhabi, I find myself asking why my conversations with the future Pope Francis so powerfully affected both of us.
Abraham SkorkaJanuary 15, 2019
Photo: iStock
Included on the list is John T. Ryan, S.J., who from 1989 to 1994 was an associate editor for development at America.
Michael J. O’LoughlinJanuary 15, 2019
Did you ever wonder why Jesus was baptized? What sins did Jesus have to repent of? Nothing.
James Martin, S.J.January 14, 2019