What a waste of winter it seems when Lent doesn’t begin until March! The Februaries of my childhood are all concentrated into memories of dirty snow and slush, grey-white skies, dark mornings, cold breath. We owned a black cocker spaniel who needed to be walked before schooltime. When the snow was fresh and not yet cleared from the walks, he would proceed by leaping, unable to shoulder his way through snow as big as he. By the time we reached home, his furry underbelly would be stiffened by dozens of little snowballs. On icy days the salt scattered on walks would eat at his tender paws and he would lie down and lick them and whimper to be picked up and lugged home.
Even when Easter arrives early, I am always surprised by how much of February goes by before Ash Wednesday. February seems made for Lent — the gloom, the cold, the tiredness of winter, the waiting for spring. I remember childhood mornings in Lent — early mornings awakened by my mother in the dark to pull on my school uniform and coat and hat and boots in time to set out for the 6:45 Mass at St. Peter’s.
The streets were quiet at that hour, except for a few delivery vans and an occasional bus or early commuter. We could hear the crunch of crusty snow underfoot or the grit of salt. We could see our breath cloud before us in the pre-dawn. We entered the side-chapel, saw it filling with its Lenten population of mothers, children and an occasional man added to the regular roster of old women and a few old men who worshipped at that hour year-round. We heard Mass said with expedition but not irreverence by priests routed out of bed like us. Sometimes the scheduled altar boy failed to turn up and one of the men in the congregation would rise to assist the priest.
There is something very moving about an unadorned daily Mass. It concentrates the mind upon the mystery being enacted before us all in its simple incomprehensibility. No incense or fancy music or carefully crafted sermon tempts the congregation into believing that these things are needed to make meaningful the gathering of the faithful around the altar of the Lord. The bare minimum of prayers and warm bodies focusses attention on what is happening up there, amid the consecrated clutter of cruets and patens and chalices and ciboria.
We with our half-awakened consciousness are not the source of the Mass’s significance — the meaning is there, Jesus is there, whether we are awake or asleep, absent or present, vocal or silent. It is better for us to be attentive, to take part, to be there. It is our loss if we elect otherwise. But the Sacrifice of the Mass goes on and Christ becomes truly present whether or not we notice the fact, or adorn it, or use a megaphone to shout it to the world.
During the rest of the year the small band of mostly old men and women worshipped at the 6:45 without us. (When I grew up to work in Manhattan, on the way to or from work I saw, in the great commuter parishes in mid-town and downtown, many younger people keeping the priest company.) But at Lent, during the stripped-down time of the year, I went in the dark to a Mass from which even the Gloria had been removed, and in the sleep-inducing warmth of the crowded chapel, watched the God- man come down from heaven and enter my fasting body.
Late winter is a time to burrow deep down into the warm places of our lives: a time of soups and stews, afghans and old sweaters and car heaters slowly dispersing the chill as they defrost icy windshields.
Towards the end of this burrowing-in period, when all the world outside still appears dead and barren, though we have begun to count the days until we may expect to see the first crocus push through the frozen ground, we enter into Lent. It is a spiritual burrowing-in period, a time to look long at the distance between ourselves and Jesus, with a view to reducing, at least a little, the span that separates us.
“Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you,” says James in his epistle. That is at once audacious and supremely consoling counsel. “Draw near to God” — like one of the sheep who knows His voice, we huddle against Him as our shelter from the cold of sin and selfishness. We draw near to Him as the fire in the hearth, though He is more like the roaring furnace in the basement. We draw near to Him in this dead time, this drab time of brittle branches and dirty snow; lost mittens and stuck zippers, cold car seats and brown lawns crunchy with frost.
“The foxes have dens, the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” So we must give Him shelter within us, in order to find shelter within Him. At this time of year we get ready to give Him better, less grudging shelter than we have perhaps given Him in a long time, or ever.
“Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall because it had been founded upon the rock” (Matt 7:24-25). That sounds like the Palestinian equivalent of our hibernation time. Jesus is the rock upon which we must build our shelter, if we hope to make it through all the wintry seasons of our lives.