“Jesus taught us that the diabolical senselessness of violence is answered with God's weapons, with prayer and fasting. I encourage believers in a special way to dedicate themselves intensely to prayer and fasting on Ash Wednesday.”
A few years back while I was in Rome, circumstances (or the Holy Spirit) took me to the seminary for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Not only did I have the blessing to participate in my first Byzantine Rite liturgy, but I also got to break bread a second time at brunch immediately following. The seminary was full of individuals who were there for some type of conference and on display was a recently completed historical compilation of the Church’s experience under occupation of the Soviet Empire. The pride in the work was evident among those gathered. As I listened to the conversation over brunch, I remember very distinctly demonstrating my absolute ignorance as to the plight of the underground Church. I made some comment like, "Wow, after all that you must be so excited to look ahead and move forward." My hosts were gracious, but I will never forget one priest leaning in and patiently explaining that, as difficult and life-threatening as practicing the faith in secret was, it was a grace because it fortified the community and reminded them of their absolute dependence on the Lord. "Our sacrifices during that time," said the priest, "helped to remind us just how close Christ is to us and how close we can come to Christ. That is something we never want our people to forget and thus the need to look back as well as look forward."
In my prayers for the people of Ukraine over these last few days and those throughout the diaspora who undoubtedly are experiencing an overwhelming range of emotions, my most important prayer besides peace was for that peace of Christ to continue to be with them. As I read the Holy Father’s invitation to fast for peace this Ash Wednesday, I couldn’t help but feel infinitely privileged to live in such relative safety and at the same time wonder if I reflect upon my own sacrifices or the sacrifices I might be contemplating for this Lent with the same gratitude as was described to me by my Ukrainian Greek priest friend all those years ago. Do I reflect on my history and see sacrifice as having brought me further from my wants or closer to Christ? Am I focused on what I will do next or on the Lord who has prepared me and continues to prepare me for what’s next on my journey? As we prepare to start anew in our effort to draw closer to Christ this Lent, perhaps we can take a moment to reflect back on our recent and ancient history and give thanks for how the Lord has fortified us and how He constantly calls us to Him in all of our struggles. May the Giver of peace the world cannot give bring consolation, protection, and an end to violence in the Ukraine and so many other places around the world engulfed in suffering. Prayers that your Lent is a time of looking back with gratitude and looking forward with hope.