The Lenten journey

Michael A. Hayes

‘O God of mercy, may your people ... by offering the age old disciplines along their pilgrim journey ... merit to come and behold you forever.’
Roman Missal, Lent: prayer over the people.

Human beings were created to live in time and space, and the mystery of the Incarnation and the Paschal mystery, which lie central to the Christian faith, emphasise that truth. God comes to meet humanity in time and space, and that reality is ritualised through the liturgy, encountered in prayer and lived out in discipleship. But that encounter is not a simple one off, it is a continuing encounter, an encounter that is expressed during Lent in a very deliberate way. Lent is a season, it is a period of time, and it is forty days – forty being a number used in the scriptures to denote a long period rather than a precise counting. But the imagery associated with Lent is also frequently that of journey, both literally and metaphorically. On the first Sunday of the season there is always the gospel of the temptation when we are told ‘The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert’ (Mk. 1.12) [or ‘led’ in the softer version of Matthew and Luke]. Jesus goes on a journey in order to spend time alone. In the following Sunday the gospel is always that of the Transfiguration, when Jesus takes his three closest disciples and leads them up a mountain to be with him. The idea of Lent being a time away from the normal routine, in order to spend time with the Lord, permeates the vocabulary of the season.

But the idea of journey is also the metaphor most suitable for the process of conversion that Lent seeks to bring about. In this year of the Lenten Cycle, we are offered the three great catechetical gospels of John, which are echoed in the scrutinies associated with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. These gospels which recount the bringing to faith of the Samaritan woman, the man born blind, and the story of the raising of Lazarus are masterpieces of dramatic unfolding. They recount the process of conversion, which unfolds in time and space as something of a journey.

The Samaritan woman who makes her every day journey to the well encounters the stranger who unfolds her life and its meaning step by step. The man born blind journeys in his understanding from meeting ‘the man called Jesus’ through progressive deepening of comprehension, until he can exclaim ‘Lord I believe.’ Lazarus’ journey is literally from death to life – but Martha’s journey of realization is also significant, her confession of faith can stand alongside Peter’s pronouncement at Caesarea Philippi: ‘Yes, Lord. I believe that you are the Christ, the one who was to come into the world.’ Those whom the community of faithful pray for during the scrutinies in each of these weeks, recognise in these gospels the journey to faith that they have made over this time of discernment. For all Christians who undertake the Lenten season – who make their way into the desert, and up the mountain of Transfiguration, all those who step by step come to recognise the Jesus they encounter, and who invites them further into faith – this is a journey of encounter and deepening of the perception of the one who is encountered. The celebration of the Paschal mystery at the Easter Vigil is, in one sense the destination, the ending of the journey, and concluding of the time that is Lent.

But while the season may end there, with Easter, for the Christian the journey of faith will continue. On Easter morning itself, there is another journey – the journey to the tomb, a journey of discovery. Then the marvellous journey to Emmaus, a journey of encounter, is recorded for our contemplation. And throughout Eastertide, the constant readings from the Acts of the Apostles, describe the journeying of Philip and Paul and Peter and others as, guided by the Spirit, the infant Church takes the message of Christ out from Jerusalem, and ultimately travels to the ends of the earth. And for the individual member of the faithful there is always the final journey, the pilgrimage to encounter the source of life, the Risen Lord. And for that ultimate passage, the Church commends the faithful to eternal salvation:

‘Go forth upon thy journey, Christian soul!
Go from this world!
Go, in the Name of God
The Omnipotent Father, Who created thee!
Go, in the Name of Jesus Christ, our Lord,
Son of the Living God, Who bled for thee!
Go, in the Name of the Holy Spirit,
Who hath been poured out on thee!’
(JH Newman: The Dream of Gerontius)