Father Jon Pedigo, STL
Director of Projects for Peace and Justice
When I was in college I was not yet baptized and I was very curious about Catholic customs. One Wednesday I noticed my friend, Kevin, sporting a black smudge on his forehead. I asked him, “Dude, what’s that on your forehead?”
“Ashes,” he said. Of course, I thought, why not keep a smudge of ashes on your forehead for everyone else to see. Then I noticed that several other students had black and grey smudges on their foreheads. So I asked Kevin what was the significance of the ashes. He said, “It’s Ash Wednesday.”
Still feeling a bit lost; I asked what was the significance of Ash Wednesday. “It’s the start of Lent where you have to give something up.” Clearly Kevin was not interested in providing answers that would help this poor young pagan any clarity. So I pressed him, “What are you going to give up for Lent?”
“Playing pinball machines,” he said. I asked Kevin what purpose would giving up pinball machines serve. He said that all Catholics had to sacrifice something that they really like and for him, giving up playing pinballs was a sacrifice.
For Kevin, Lent was a tangible way for him to connect to the Catholicism of his mother (she insisted that all her children practice the Catholic discipline of Lent) and a way to think about his relationship to God (vis a vis giving up pinball games). In this brief article I will present another way to consider how we might think of Lent.
Lent is the 40-day period in which the Elect (those who will enter the Church through full initiation), enter the final stages of discernment in preparation for their baptism. For those of us who are already baptized, Lent is a time in which we prepare to renew our baptismal promises through the practice of fasting, almsgiving and prayer. Lent always turns from the self and points us toward the baptismal waters of Easter where we promise to share in the three-fold ministry of Christ: Priest, Prophet and King.
The baptismal reference of “Priest” is not referring to the ecclesial priesthood of ordination, but rather a reference to Christ’s role as the Great High Priest. As Priest, Christ intercedes for all people and prays that the people may be one, as he and the Father are one. (Take the time to read and pray the passage of John 17, the “Priestly Prayer of Jesus”) In the context of Lent, Jesus’ priestly prayer is not only a prayer for unity: it is a Lenten call to reconcile and heal any divisions that exist between others and ourselves. Our Lenten journey as “Priest” will lead us to commit ourselves to work toward building a more inclusive, welcoming community in which all persons feel connected and embraced.
The reference to sharing in the ministry of “Prophet” is perhaps the most explicit reference to social justice. The role of the Prophets in the Scriptures was a dual role that, on one hand, provided a “check and balance” to the king and other the other, challenged ordinary people to live extra-ordinary lives. The Prophets stood up in defense of the widow, orphan and immigrant and critiqued the king to exercise his office with compassion for the poor, justice for the oppressed and to conduct himself with humility. The Prophets also shared a vision of peace and prosperity for all as a way to inspire ordinary people to move from complacency into action. They called upon the people to convert their hearts from vice and resentment and to turn their lives over to the God of Israel. Participating in the ministry of “Prophet” in Lent reminds us that injustice is not solely the fault of poor leadership on the top, but also due to the complacency of those who live on the bottom. Lent gives us an opportunity to build up our community along the vision of the Peaceable Kingdom where the mighty lion lies peacefully with the fragile calf (see Isaiah 11) and for us to get involved in the solution rather than simply blaming others for social ills.
The third baptismal ministry, “King,” seems misplaced because we associate a king with pomp and circumstance. But if we look to the Kingship of Christ, we see a radically different understanding of kingship. Christ’s kingship is not like the corrupt kingship of Herod nor the authoritarian rule of Pontius Pilate. His kingship is marked by humility, self-sacrifice and service to others. In Matthew 20:25-26 Jesus cautioned his disciples not to “…lord authority over others” but rather be a servant to all. Sharing in the baptismal ministry of “King” is putting into practice how we might exercise authority among others. In Lent we might take the time to ask ourselves if power is being used appropriately in our own family. We might even involve ourselves in supporting low wage workers gain justice in the workplace. We could even address public officials’ treatment of the poor and vulnerable.