Lent Is A Gift
I have a confession to make. When I was young, I didn’t like Lent. In fact Lent seemed like the longest 40 days of the year. It probably had something to do with the fact that in our home during this season, we couldn’t watch TV; couldn’t have candy or snacks; and we observed other penitential practices that marked the season. However, as I grew older, and especially during my time in the seminary, I came to recognize Lent as a gift – a yearly time of grace, a 40-day retreat offered by the Church to help me deepen my relationship in God.
Our observance of Lent is rooted in two ancient practices of the Church: the catechumenate – the initiation of persons into the Church – and the reconciliation of public penitents to God and the Church. Through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, we share in the journey of faith of our catechumens and candidates in parishes around the diocese as they prepare for the Sacraments of Initiation at the Easter Vigil. They are reminders to us of our own baptismal commitment to live as faithful followers of Christ. As we prepare to renew our baptismal promises at Easter, the Church invites us to examine our lives, to reflect on our sinfulness and our need for repentance and conversion. For it is only when we recognize that areas of darkness still reign in our lives that we can seek forgiveness and, with God’s grace, strive to change our sinful behavior and attitudes. Through acts of self-denial and penance, we strive to atone for our sins. Also, by stripping away the superfluous in our lives and concentrating on what is truly essential, we are strengthened to fight temptation in the future.
The Church offers three ways for us to accomplish this process of conversion: Prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Through our Lenten commitment to prayer, we strive to make more space for God, perhaps with fewer distractions like TV, radio or social media. I invite you to use this time to come to daily Mass, do spiritual reading (whether from Scripture or a good spiritual book), pray the rosary, Stations of the Cross or other devotion. By fasting and other acts of self-denial and self-discipline, we strive to master our desire for immediate gratification and reinforce our will to avoid sin. This should definitely include less food, but also some of the other extras of life we really don’t need. Almsgiving and other works of charity really fulfill our prayer and fasting as they keep us from getting self-absorbed during Lent by opening us to the needs of others. By offering our time, effort and financial assistance to the poor, lonely and forgotten, we show our love for the Lord, who reminded us that he is especially present in those who struggle. Through prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we are to root out of our lives whatever is not of God – impatience, selfishness, self-righteousness, greed, jealousy, impurity.
Lent offers us the opportunity to renew and deepen our relationship with God by breaking out of any spiritual malaise and complacency. Every aspect of our life should be touched by Lent– at home, work, school, in the neighborhood as well as our personal life. The effects of this season should be more than cosmetic or temporary. We strive to change not just for 40 days or for Easter, but for life. As the prophet Joel will remind us on Ash Wednesday, “Rend your hearts, not your garments” so that our conversion might penetrate to the core of our being.
The ashes with which we will be marked on Ash Wednesday are a sign of our mortality, and an ancient symbol of penance and utter dependence on God. By stepping forward to receive them, whether we are clergy, religious or lay faithful, young or old, we accept the commitment to embrace the whole of this season of grace and renewal as deeply as we can. Now is the acceptable time, custom made for each of us as we support one another as fellow pilgrims, struggling on the path of conversion.
May the Lord bless us on our Lenten pilgrimage, as we journey from winter to spring, from sin to repentance, from death to new life.