One week from this Wednesday, the Church will mark Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the holy season of Lent. 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.
Lent is a great love story, though it may not seem so at first glance. If we first focus on sacrifice, self-denial, and penance (the what) without understanding why, then we will be placing our focus in the wrong area. Lent is a great love story because it is about 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 the Lord’s call to return to that grace again. This call to return is what the first part of the season speaks 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 what does not belong in our lives so that the grace of God may find a welcome place in us. 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. The reception of ashes and pious acts of sacrifice and self-denial must come from a genuine desire to change; if not, then these acts are empty and do us little, if any, spiritual good.
There are many things that we can do for Lent: add daily Mass to our daily routine, pray the Stations of the Cross, read 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; or perhaps we might choose to focus on doing the things that we should already be doing but are not. 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 on Ash Wednesday from the Prophet Joel says: “even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart.” Make sure that this coming Lent is about your journey deeper into the grace, love, and mercy that is freely offered to us by our Father through Jesus His Son.
Father Christopher House is the Rector of the Cathedral and serves in various leadership roles within the diocesan curia, namely Chancellor and Vicar Judicial.