Lenten Reflections

Despite being a season of sacrifice, Lent is my favorite time of the year. For Christians, Lent marks a period of reflection, a time to pull inward, block out distractions, sweep away mental clutter and draw closer to the Lord in communion with the Spirit. It’s a spiritual status check and offers us a chance to recalibrate in pursuit of goodness and light.

Stained Glass Window. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Since relocating from Arizona to my native central New York in 2006, I have enjoyed celebrating Easter more than Christmas; this preference is based partly on meteorological reasons.

Christmas leads to a descent into the clutches of winter; I think of Persephone returning to Hades and the Earth becoming barren. Here in Syracuse the clouds drop lake-effect snow continuously and ice coats streets and sidewalks as the cold gray days stretch for months. And it seems my body doesn’t fully thaw out until about mid-April. Let’s not even talk about the winter air causing dry itchy skin and my black knit hat producing static electricity and an Alfalfa-inspired hairstyle.

For those who don’t ski, snowboard or play ice hockey, winter is nothing but a drag. But with Lent there is hope in the form of spring renewal: we march through a series of events that herald a change of season—Daylight Saving Time, Major League Baseball spring training, St. Patrick’s Day, the NCAA basketball tournament, opening day of the baseball season and the start of the NHL playoffs. I realize the heavy sports theme, but your mind needs something to look forward to when you look out your window and see nothing but a wall of white.

Lent also brings the added benefit of Friday fish fries. I never quite understood the logic of Catholics giving up meat on Fridays only to eat a huge greasy piece of cod or haddock and a plate of French fries. But why complain? Moderation is everything, so pass the crispy potatoes and fish.

With the onset of Lent and the celebration of Easter, I know Mother Nature will alter the landscape in central New York. It may take a while, but the flowers will bloom, the trees will bud, the sun will shine again and the temperature will climb above 25 degrees.

St. Francis Xavier Church (Phoenix, AZ). Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Yet a spiritual renewal is even more important. Lent shifts the focus to the priorities of life: family and faith. I am reminded once again that this world and my place in it are passing away. Time ebbs and I need to strengthen my relationship with God, devoting time to it instead of making it ancillary, like squeezing in a few prayers before bed. I also strive to become more patient, more giving and less selfish. I don’t always succeed but that’s part of the growing process.

But here’s the real reason Easter beats Christmas in my opinion. Christmas is the beginning—the Incarnation, the Word Made Flesh. Easter culminates Christ’s mission on Earth. For believers, Christ’s death and Resurrection guarantee our salvation. Take away the Passion and we have no redemption. So that’s why Easter has always seemed the more solemn holiday for me. And in reviewing the Stations of the Cross, I recall the sacrifice Christ made for us. And as that knowledge sinks in, it gives me a sense of security in an insecure world.

Christ on Cross (St. Peter's Church, Rome, NY). Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Christ on Cross (St. Peter’s Church, Rome, NY). Photo by Francis DiClemente.

During Lent I also try to read the Bible more often. So I’ll leave you with a passage I ran across recently. It’s from the Apostle Paul, and although I am not one to quote Scripture, I feel this text can penetrate the darkness, bringing hope and shining light for anyone, even nonbelievers.

“We are hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed … therefore we do not lose heart. Even though the outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9, 16-17; King James Bible).


Spring Anyone?

The anticipation of spring is overwhelming here in upstate New York. March ushers in a sense of hope as winter relents and spring creeps toward us. We’re not there yet. We still have more cold gray days ahead, with temperatures barely climbing out of the thirties. More snow will fall and the wind will continue to chafe exposed earlobes, noses and cheeks.

But you can sense spring is almost here. We’ll be setting our clocks ahead this weekend as Daylight Saving Time resumes.

March brings with it Friday fish fry specials that are welcomed by Lenten observers, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations and the apogee of the college basketball season. After the conference tournaments wind down, fans will be dissecting the NCAA tourney pairings and filling out their brackets. The NHL season is moving along and the playoffs will be upon us soon.

This is my favorite time of year, because it’s a season of possibility, where the full glory of spring and summer lies ahead, just waiting to be plucked like a ripe peach. Now we can allow ourselves to imagine barbecues, pool parties, softball games, weekend getaways, outdoor concerts and fireworks on the Fourth of July.

Trees in full glory. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Trees in full glory. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

I am reminded of The Twilight Zone episode Walking Distance (1959) where a business executive returns to his hometown and finds it unchanged. He is overcome by a feeling of nostalgia when he encounters his boyhood self during a summer marked by merry-go-rounds, cotton candy and band concerts, and he tries to instruct his younger self to savor his childhood while he still has the chance.

The man, Martin Sloan, says to the boy: “I only wanted to tell you that this is a wonderful time for you.”

So in this northern corner of the world, as Mother Nature gets ready to release a measure of heat, we can prepare to store our boots, coats, gloves, hats, sweaters and scarves for another year. We can get to ready to strike the terms black ice, lake effect, wind chill and Nor’easter from our vocabulary, at least for another nine months. It’s about time to step outside, stretch our limbs and live again.

Baseball’s Opening Day and the Big Feast at Vinci’s House

Meanwhile, spring training continues in Florida and Arizona—another sign that winter will be ending soon—and the first pitch of Major League Baseball’s regular season is less than a month away.

Bill Vinci, my best friend from my hometown of Rome, N.Y., holds an annual party on the first full day of the MLB season. Regardless of the weather, regardless of where he happens to be employed at the time—and he’s rotated through several jobs over the past decade—he invites friends over to his house to watch the opening day games.

The party host, Bill Vinci. Photo courtesy of Bill Vinci.

The party host, Bill Vinci. Photo courtesy of Bill Vinci.

It’s an all-day party with a group of friends debating their fantasy teams. Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to attend one of these parties because I’ve always had to work or I’ve lived elsewhere in the U.S.

But I find the concept appealing because of the allure of playing hooky from work to watch baseball; and it’s also entertaining to see the players shivering on the basepaths and in the dugouts and outfield grass during early April games in cities like Chicago, Detroit, Cincinnati and Boston.

Vinci tells me the party consists of watching baseball from the first at-bat to the “final pitch on the West Coast.” And his celebration has real roots in the Rome area, stretching back to Vinci’s high school days, starting around 1985.

“I would skip school and have my friends come over and watch baseball and eat in my parents’ basement,” he says. He adds, “As the years go by the attendees have decreased due to work, kids, etc., but that hasn’t stopped me from putting on the greatest opening day party in Rome.”

Bill Vinci swinging away. Photo courtesy of Bill Vinci.

Bill Vinci swinging away. Photo courtesy of Bill Vinci.

And the action on the diamond is enhanced by the menu for the occasion; the spread of food includes “dogs, burgers, sausage, hot and sweet peppers and sausage bread, along with chips and dip.”

So that’s what I’ve been missing all these years.

But Vinci, who serves as director of marketing for the Utica Brewers baseball club of the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League (PGCBL), says the “reason I host opening day is the love and passion of the game of baseball. It’s in my blood and to have friends and family enjoy it with me makes it all worth it.”

He adds, “as long as I’m on this earth, you can always count on one thing—opening day of baseball at Vinci’s house.”

To that I say batter up.

Getting reading for the season. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Getting ready for the season. Photo by Francis DiClemente.