Lent, Liturgy and Life

by Adam Setmeyer | Mar 05, 2014

"Full, conscious, and active participation."  That is one of the most notable phrases to come out of all of Vatican II (the monumental gathering of the world's Catholic bishops from 1962-1965).  The phrase is a call and a challenge regarding the liturgy, specifically the mass, but, also, the entire prayer life of body of Christ.  But what does that participation look like, and what does it have to do with Lent (which is both celebrated on Sundays and is a prayer that envelops every moment of the forty days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday)? 

There is another quote that I think illumines the statement from Vatican II, and it comes from Dom Vigil Michel (1888-1938) a leader in the liturgical movement leading up to the council.  He said, “The mission of Christ, the mission of the church, the liturgy of the church, all demand contact of the faithful with the living channels of Christ’s action here on earth . . . The church has maintained for the faithful an intimate and active participation in the action which the priests perform in the name of all.”  I LOVE the word “intimate,” because it is relational.  At least for me, the word "intimate" helps explain that “full, conscious, and active participation” has less to do with doing the right things at the right times in the right manner, and more to do with engaging with God relationally in all my prayer which, in turn, impacts my entire life.

This idea came alive for me during Lent two years ago when my wife, Andrea, and I started a small group study in our parish based on the book A Place at the Table by Chris Seay which made a connection between Lent, scriptural stories, and poverty in our world today.  We gathered together a small but diverse group with the simple goal of reading the daily devotionals in the book and coming together Sunday Mass to talk about our experience with the hope of becoming more aware of the issue of poverty.  By reaching out to people and inviting them to the group, reading the book, and taking the reflections seriously I felt we had checked our “full, conscious, and active” boxes, so to speak, that Lent.  Then, three Sundays in, something changed – everyone around the table opened up and what they revealed surprised us.  While we, Andrea and I, were interested in learning about poverty, the others had experienced it firsthand.  In fact, one of the small group members shared that he did not know how they were going to pay for food the rest of the week or in the near future.  It was at this point Andrea and I were challenged to move into the experience more intimately.  I am proud to say, in particular, that Andrea really came to know that person and his family better, always praying for them, taking over meals, and, really, fostering a special friendship.  That is intimate participation.

What if this is how we approached Lent this year?  Instead of checking off the boxes of prayer, fasting, and alms giving we used those disciplines, Sunday mass, and daily prayer to enter into a deeper, more intimate, relationship with Christ.  I believe that is what the Bishops of Vatican II had in mind, and it is a challenge I wish to take up this year.

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