Lent asks us to focus less on ourselves and more on others

The word Lent is an old one. Scholars tell us it comes from the Old English for “lengthen”, meaning, in the northern hemisphere, this time of year coincides with longer days and the coming of spring.

Of course, it is the other way round in Australia, but the word reminds us that religious festivals are
often attuned to cycles of nature. Christmas, for example, comes at the solstice. You don’t have to be religious to appreciate that nature tells a big story and we are just one part of it.

Pope Francis puts ashes on the forehead of a cardinal during a 2020 Ash Wednesday Mass marking the beginning of Lent.Credit:AP

Lent, which starts on Ash Wednesday – February 22 – is the time that Christians prepare for the celebration of Easter. It resonates with other times of deeper awareness, such as Ramadan.

I am old enough to remember strict observances. One day when I was at school, the pies arrived by mistake at the tuck shop on a Friday in Lent, when meat was forbidden. The canteen did not have refrigeration to keep them over the weekend, so there was a moral dilemma. Would we be allowed to eat the pies and break the rule? Or would the pies be thrown out? Lent has a special focus on the world’s hungry, and wasting food was unthinkable.

Luckily, Father Connolly came to the rescue. He stood up at assembly and announced that of
course, we would be allowed to eat the pies because, as everybody knew, there was no meat in a
meat pie, only sawdust. Both the rule and common sense could prevail, even if it involved slander
against the poor bakers.

Lent asks us to focus less on ourselves and more on others. For almost 60 years, it has been celebrated in many communities through Project Compassion, a creative campaign organised
by Caritas Australia, an arm of the Australian Catholic Church that provides aid and works to eradicate poverty and injustice. Project Compassion helps to support hundreds of thousands of people close to the margins, both in Australia and far beyond.

One of those people is Tereesa, a young Gamilaroi woman, who lives near Mount Druitt in
Sydney, home to one of the biggest Indigenous communities in Australia.Ten years ago, Tereesa and her children were homeless. Her story is a gritty one of courage and connection. She joined the mums and bubs group at Baabayn Aboriginal Corporation, supported by Caritas Australia. Here she formed bonds with others, especially women, and developed her extraordinary artistic talent.

Tereesa with her four children.

She now has four children and supports other young mums. Hers is just one story among many. Her art is one reminder of the importance of Indigenous culture in expressing the spirituality of this country.

Christians believe that Easter celebrates the way in which Christ transformed humanity. We
also believe that we are called to continue that transformation, to try to make the world more just,
compassionate, forgiving and alive.

Michael McGirr is the mission facilitator at Caritas Australia.

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