My youngest daughter is three years old, and she is fascinated by how people are related to her. This extends both to natural family relations (such as her obsessive love for her grandparents down in Texas) to imaginary relationships (she is the mommy of a large family of baby dolls) to spiritual relationships.
Recently, she has been trying to construct a theology of spiritual family. She usually spends Sunday Mass on my lap, and she and I have been having long, complex conversations about, “Mary my muh-der, Jesus my bruh-der, and God (the Father) my fah-der.” My oldest also recently gave her a beautiful image of Mary holding her, while Jesus begged for a chance to snuggle his spiritual “baby sister.” Since she routinely lives out that reality in our family, this contemplation was not a stretch for her. She walks up to the sanctuary with all the confidence of a baby sister who knows she is loved.
Since her daddy works at a seminary, we also have a fairly large spiritual family. She knows that all of the priests are her “spiritual fathers” and her godparents (who also work there) are her spiritual parents. Recently, she has happily decided that one of the other women who works there is also her spiritual mother, and when we visit with this friend, she will happily call her, “Mother!”
The bonds of her spiritual family are just as real to her as the bonds of her biological family.
The Church as Mother
In her childlike faith, my daughter has helped me better understand the reality of our familial bonds to others in the Church. The people I see at Mass, Catholics halfway around the world, and the saints in heaven – they are all my spiritual brothers and sisters, and the Church is our mother. Within that dynamic are also the very real call to spiritual maternity and spiritual paternity.
But the theology behind spiritual familial bonds is not just sentimental. It is a reality rooted deeply in Scripture. In the Gospel of Mark, when Jesus’s biological relatives come to see him, he responds in this way:
And looking around at those seated in the circle he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. [For] whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”(Mark 3:34-35)
These bonds are real, Jesus assures us, and they matter. But, how seriously do we take them?
Penance in Love
My middle daughter often reminisces about a night several years ago when she had an awful case of stomach flu. On that night, I did what countless mothers before me have done—I slept beside her so that when she woke up to be sick, I could hold the bucket in one arm and her in the other.
I am not a fan of throw-up, and I get very anxious about germs and illness, but that night, my love of her made the sacrifice easy. I couldn’t leave the side of my suffering child.
While any healthy parent would sacrifice in order tend to her sick child, would we do the same for one of our suffering brothers or sisters in Christ?
Lent is a time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Any ones of those (or all three!) can be directed towards penance offered for a brother or sister in Christ. An additional prayer, an additional sacrifice, and an additional act of generosity – all of these can be directed towards love of another.
The Fast God Desires
In the book of Isaiah, chapter 58, God tells his people what sort of fasting pleases him. It is not sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice, but rather… sacrifice for the sake of love. Likewise, in the readings for Ash Wednesday, God says to, “…rend your hearts, not your garments.”
This is not to say that there is no benefit to traditional fasting and penance. There certainly is, provided that it is done from a place of love—in imitation of the loving sacrifice of Christ.
Are you giving up dessert for Lent? Maybe offer up that sacrifice for someone you know who is suffering. Are you going to Eucharistic Adoration once a week? Maybe pick a different person to offer up your holy hour for each week. Are you planning on donating to a charitable cause? Couple it with adding the intentions of the recipient to your daily prayers.
Penance and Lent are not just about growing in discipline. Lent is a season aimed at conforming our hearts to the heart of Christ. What does that mean? It means loving those he loves and also loving in the way that he loves. To find the answer to both of those, we need only to look to the cross.
To sacrifice in love this Lent—that is what Jesus desires the most for us.