When Every Day was Ash Wednesday

“Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting
this campaign of Christian service, 
so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils, 
we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.”

Ash Wednesday is a shock to the system.  The day of fasting is the Church’s way of forcing us to dive into the deep end- there’s no easing our way into Lent.  As I was reflecting on how wimpy I am and the hunger I felt today, it occurred to me that I was still probably going to eat the same amount or even a little more today than Father Kapaun and the men in the prison camps had to eat day in and day out.  For me, Ash Wednesday is only one day.  For Father Kapaun and the men in the North Korean POW camps, every day was Ash Wednesday.

I am truly blessed.  The worst penances I have to suffer are only glimpses of what many people go through in life.  Still, it’s easy to complain- at least interiorly- about the penances we do in Lent rather than to embrace them and allow them to bring us closer to the Lord.  I’m sure many of the men in the prison camps probably complained.  I’m guessing the men who complained the most were the ones who didn’t make it out.  Still others learned to deal with their sufferings in different ways- with humor, resiliency, or resistance.  Father Kapaun took it to another level altogether by allowing God into the situations.  He not only suffered his mandatory penances with a freedom of spirit, he also took on many voluntary ones such as picking lice, cleaning filthy clothes, cleaning the latrines, and sharing his own meager rations.  He did these all with love, and that’s why we’re still talking about them today.

Bishop Carl Kemme preached at the Noon Ash Wednesday Mass at the Cathedral today.  He started off by sharing the sentiment from St. Teresa of Calcutta that “We cannot all do great things, but we can do small things with great love.”  He said this applies perfectly to us for Lent and its three traditional practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.  Our penances aren’t meant to be huge, great things in themselves, but they do become great things when done with great love.  Without love, he said, prayer is just talking, fasting is just going hungry, and almsgiving is just being nice.  But with love, these three are acts of charity that transform us in the way that the Church desires for Lent.

Again, I couldn’t help but think of Father Kapaun in the prison camp.  Yes, there was a time on the battlefield when he did some pretty amazing things, but most of the deeds he did were small acts done with great love.  As we begin Lent, let us ask Father Kapaun to walk with us in our “campaign of Christian service”, and let us ask God to infuse love into all of our penances so they too may become great things.

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