No, the tagline for this article is not a mistake nor are we jumping the gun because, believe it or not, A s h We d n e s d a y a n d t h e beginning of Lent is less than three weeks away. With that in mind, I thought it might be good for us to being to turn our minds toward this holy season. Like many things in life, what you get out of Lent will depend on what you put into it and, with Lent, attitude is everything. I will confess that in my younger days that I saw Lent as nothing more than a forty-day slog through drudgery and Friday nights of limited options for going out to eat; once again, attitude is everything. So how do we see/approach Lent?
Lent is a great love story. It may not seem to be so on the surface but what is the season all about? If we first focus on sacrifice, self-denial, and penance then we will be placing our focus in the wrong area. Lent is a great love story because it is about a God, our God, who has a love for us that is unbreakable, unrelenting, and inexhaustible, even though we are guilty of rejecting his love time and time again. The selections that the Church gives us from the Scriptures demonstrate this. We are reminded that God has chosen us to be his own and that he has done this is a wonderful way in his only Son through baptism. Through sin, we have squandered the grace that God has given us through this sacrament, but Lent is about a call to return to that grace again. This is what the first four and a half weeks of the season speak to, from Ash Wednesday until the Fifth Sunday.
The second part of Lent continues to tell that same great love story but recalls how this love of God was perfectly manifested in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus, that is, in his passion, death, and resurrection. The fifth week of Lent transitions us to Holy Week which ends with the triumph of Easter. It is at this glorious feast that we renew our baptismal promises, having focused on allowing God to renew the grace of that same sacrament in us throughout Lent.
Sacrifice and self-denial are our responses to the gift of God’s grace that is offered to us for our renewal. The penances and pious acts that we may choose to adopt are not ends in themselves, but acts by which we seek to root out in our lives what does not belong so that the grace of God may find a welcome place deep in our lives. The same is true about the reception of Ashes on Ash Wednesday. The ashes we receive are nothing more than the ash of old palms that has been blessed. There is nothing mystical about the ashes in themselves. What is important about the ashes is that we receive them as an outward sign of an inner desire to change our lives, to be converted back to right relationship with God. Ashes and pious acts of sacrifice and self-denial must come from a genuine desire to change; if not then these acts are empty.
There are many things that we can do for Lent: add daily Mass to our daily routine, pray the Stations of the Cross, ready the Scriptures daily, participate in giving to CRS Rice Bowl, give alms in the special collections for charity, give your time to a good cause, add time for daily prayer, and the list goes on and on. Whatever you may do or not do, make whatever choice you do in the hope of growing deeper in the love that God has for you. Lent is not about what do I have to give up but rather how can I respond to the Lord’s call to turn back to him. The first reading of Lent on Ash Wednesday begins God’s word spoken through the Prophet Joel: “even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart.” Make sure that this coming Lent is about your journey going deep into the grace, love, and mercy that is freely offered to us by our God through Jesus.
Father Christopher House is the Rector-Pastor of the Cathedral and serves in various leadership roles within the diocesan curia.