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Friday, March 20, 2020

The Long Lent of 2020

Catholics are giving up much more than they’d planned on this Lent. In order to slow the spread of this new coronavirus, extraordinary social distancing measures are being implemented. Schools, businesses, and restaurants are closing. Several states have issued mandatory orders to “shelter in place.” It’s now a misdemeanor to go out for something non-essential in California. These are strange and hard days. Catholics weren’t imagining they’d be giving up “other people” for Lent.

Hardest of all, though, is that many Catholics no longer have access to sacramental communion at Mass. This is true for us here in Vermont. Catholics fast during Lent. But nobody fasts from the Eucharist. 

This decision was necessary. But it’s also tragic and painful: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,” Jesus says, “you have no life in you” (Jn 6:53). I can’t smooth Jesus’s words into nothing and pretend our distance from Mass over the coming time will be painless. Neither can I assure you that TV Masses and spiritual communions will suffice. They won’t. But there are some things we can say about all this that might be helpful as we grind through the “Long Lent of 2020.”

A first point: Jesus says we’ll “have no life” unless we consume his flesh and blood. But he doesn’t say we need to consume him every week, or every day, or anything like that at all. And what’s interesting is that, in the grand scope of Catholic history, even if we've always attended Mass every week, receiving the Eucharist every week is actually very recent and exceptional. In the Middle Ages especially, there was limited reception of the Eucharist. The Poor Clares received only six times each year. Third Order Dominicans just four. Even some of the Church’s great saints, like Saint Louis, received just six times a year. Saint Elizabeth of Hungary just three. 

A second point: There’s a startling story from the fifth century about Saint Augustine. When it became clear to him that he was dying, he did something quite extraordinary and counterintuitive ― he began to fast from the Eucharist. You’d think that, in his moment of vulnerability and weakness, he would seek communion even more frequently. On the contrary, he said that, in this moment, he wanted to be among those who hunger and thirst for Jesus with the greatest possible acuteness

I’m not saying that, under normal circumstances, you should fast from the Eucharist. But I am saying that, under our current circumstances, yesterday’s saints might have something important to teach us: namely, that fasting increases our desire. And if it’s Jesus that we’re fasting from ― in this case, forced to fast from ― our best move is to allow this Long Lent to increase our desire for the Eucharist. It’s a chance to finally be numbered ― like Augustine, Louis, or Elizabeth ― among those who truly hunger and thirst with the greatest possible acuteness for Jesus.

There’s a third and final point to be made, and it’s one that we always forget. We need to remember that there’s a flip side to the Eucharist. When we receive communion, we not only receive Jesus; Jesus also receives us. But right now, he cannot receive you. And so his desire for you is increasing. [1] Do not think for a moment that he will be satisfied with spiritual communions and TV Masses. They are good, as far as they go. But he desires you way too much. You thought you were heartbroken about the cancellation of Mass? It does not compare.

The Old Testament Song of Solomon describes a lover who pines after her beloved: “I sought him whom my soul loves, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer” (Sg 3:1). This woman breaks into the streets and searches up and down the alleys in search of her beloved, wailing the whole way. Right now you might think you’re the lover, heartbroken and lost because Mass has been taken away from you. I assure you. You are the one being sought after. And when we’re through with this Long Lent ― when the Divine Lover gets you in his arms again — he’ll respond just as the lover from the Song of Solomon did: “when I found him whom my soul loves. I held him, and would not let him go!" I would not let him go!


[1] Father Justin DuVall, vice-rector at Bishop Simon Brute College Seminary made a similar point this week.


~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

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