The Gospel proclamation for the first Sunday of Lent (Mark 1:12-15) tells of the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness preparing for his ministry of announcing the good news of the reign of God. As we begin our Lenten observance this year, we would do well to fix our eyes on Jesus, to enter with him into the spirit of those 40 days in preparation for the celebration of the Easter mysteries.
At the close of the 40 days, Jesus moves from the wilderness to Galilee. Those 40 days in the wilderness were devoted to praying, fasting and undergoing the harshest kinds of temptation. But the 40 days can also be understood as a period of intense preparation, a time for Jesus to make room in himself for all those he would meet in the course of his public ministry, for all those who would draw near to him, come to him, plead with him, ask him for mercy and healing and help. Our Lenten practices are much more than pious devotions. Whether our practice takes the form of “giving up” dessert during Lent, redoubling our efforts at prayer, increasing our contribution to help those in need, fasting or abstaining from meat, they are all to be understood as a Spirit-assisted effort to empty ourselves of all that would stand in the way of being filled to overflowing with the light and life and love of God.
Lent is the time to empty ourselves not only of the seemingly never-ending stuff, sound and speed in our lives, but also of our pettiness, our prejudice, our anxiety, our fear. It is an opportunity to make room, not only for God, but for those who come our way. How open is our door to those who come to us?
Is there room enough in our hearts and our homes for those in need? We face a unique challenge in this call to make room for God. In recent months and in different parts of the world, we have seen the escalation of strong sentiments against immigrants. These sentiments appear to be mounting in our own country as well. How might our various Lenten practices such as prayer, fasting and almsgiving, our effort to empty ourselves so as to make room for God, relate to the complex reality of immigration, especially in the face of increasing hostility toward immigrants?
Pope Benedict XVI’s first Encyclical Letter, Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”) is helpful to us here. Writing on love as the heart of the Christian faith, our Holy Father says: “… if in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be devout and to perform my ‘religious duties,’ then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely ‘proper’ but loveless. Only my readiness to encounter my neighbor and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well… Love of God and love of neighbor are thus inseparable, they form a single commandment …”
To the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ answer is clear. As his disciples, we are called to attend to the last, littlest, lowest and least in society and in the church. This Lenten season, join me in committing our Lenten practices to making room for the stranger in our midst, praying for the courage and strength to offer our spiritual and pastoral ministry to all who come to us, offering our prayer and support for the ones in our midst who, like Jesus, have no place to rest their heads (Matthew 8:20).
Cardinal Roger Mahony is the archbishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The archdiocese is comprised of 5 million Catholics, making it the largest in the nation. Mass is celebrated in 42 different languages, also making the archdiocese one of the most diverse in the world.
If the current efforts in Congress to make it a felony to shield or offer support to illegal immigrants suceeds, Cardinal Mahony has said he will instruct his priests — and faithful lay Catholics — to defy the law. A recent New York Times editorial said, “Cardinal Mahony’s declaration of solidarity with undocumented immigrants, for whom Lent is every day, is a startling call to civil disobedience, as courageous as it is timely. We hope it forestalls the day when works of mercy become a federal crime.”