Lent

2 Mar

Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.With these words, first spoken by God to Adam, the priest marks the foreheads of the faithful with the Sign of the Cross in ashes on Ash Wednesday as a sign of penitence and of the transience of our earthly lives. This verse, derived from Genesis 3:19, is older and less common than the one often used contemporarily. We also hear: “Repent and believe in the good news”, taken from Mark’s account of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. (cf. Mark 1:15)

Both of these pronouncements convey the same message, though the former arguably seems more hopeful than the latter. The message in both cases is that we are susceptible to sin. With sin comes death, but through Jesus Christ there is redemption from our iniquity. Thus, though our earthly life is finite, we are promised eternal life if we follow Our Lord. The first step in following Him is to recognize our need to repent; otherwise one cannot renounce evil ways.

During the Lenten season, some may be overwhelmed by an awareness of sin and death. Traditionally, many will sacrifice something pleasurable during Lent. We are asked to make a special effort to abstain from eating meat on Fridays or to give more to the poor. It is recommended that we receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation before the celebration of Easter. Also, Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, when we are concretely reminded of our fallen human nature by the placement of the ashen Sign of the Cross on our foreheads.

These examples of Lenten activities are all meant to do us good. The observance of Lent ought to strengthen us in our Christian faith, not only during Lent’s six-and-a-half weeks, but throughout the rest of the year as well. However, if our Lenten actions become only empty gestures, without the reinforcement of our faith’s purpose, that is, to live in and by the love of Christ, then we have accomplished nothing. (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:1-2)

I was asked a question related to this by a friend shortly after Lent began about the practice of giving up meat on Ash Wednesday and on Fridays. On what was meant as a day of abstinence, my friend, who was eating a meat sandwich, came into the room where I was. She looked up at me with a slight look of guilt on her face as she realized that she was eating meat on a day when that was discouraged. She asked me whether she was doing something wrong, since she hadn’t intended to eat meat but had merely forgotten that it was a day of abstinence. I jokingly replied that, since her action didn’t fulfill all the requirements for a mortal sin (that it is of a grave matter, that one knows that the action is wrong, and that one has full consent of the will) because full consent of the will is debatable when people simply forget, her absent-minded consumption of the meat sandwich was at worst a venial sin, if it were sinful at all.

After the resultant laughter at my satire at the expense of those who are mercilessly pharisaical, I explained that it would be inappropriate for me to judge my friend as having supposedly sinned by eating meat when she ought not to have. Moreover, the friend in question is kind, faithful, and merciful, and gives much of herself while serving in various capacities in the church and university communities. In my opinion, she is a wonderful example of a Catholic who lives the Lenten message even beyond Lent. So what about a poorly-timed meat sandwich? The rule concerning the ingestion of meat is a means of enriching our faith by making us more aware of what we have and are thankful for. Many people in the world have little food, let alone a serving of meat, on most days. However, if one already tries earnestly to give of their riches and gifts in Christ’s name, and prayerfully gives thanks to God for these, then the odd serving of meat becomes irrelevant.

Instead of being a time of despair when we search for little faults with which to beat ourselves up, Lent is meant as a time of hopefulness. This theme is clear in a number of Scriptural passages that have been heard so far during this Lenten season. On Ash Wednesday, we heard the first example of this message of hope, from the Second Letter to the Corinthians:

“For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. As we work together in Him, we urge you not to accept the grace of God in vain. For He says: ‘At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.’ See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 5:21-6:2)

Surely, Lent is also a time of repentance. We recognize the times when we have failed to be “ambassadors for Christ”. (2 Corinthians 5:20) But penance is always done with a spirit of hope. God sent us Our Saviour who leads us to Himself by baby steps every day. Inasmuch as we turn to the Lord “with (our) whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning”, (Joel 2:12) the Lord takes pity on His people and endeavours to save us. (cf. Joel 2:18 )

Our hopeful journey toward Heaven doesn’t need to be done in boastful pride. God alone calls us to sainthood and anoints us with His grace, without which all is hopeless. We only need to respond in our little way*, and God will aid our growth in righteousness. Jesus warns us in St. Matthew’s Gospel: “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father…But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.” (Matthew 6:1, 6:18 )

God, who is our hope, nurtures our hope and creates greatness in us. Through Our Lord, we become “a nation great, strong, and numerous.” (Deuteronomy 26:5) Filled with the Holy Spirit, we can withstand temptation as Christ did. (cf. Luke 4:1-12) St. Paul assures us: “‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’…For one believes with the heart and is so justified, and one confesses with the mouth and is so saved. For Scripture says, ‘No one who believes in Him will be put to shame.’” (Romans 10:8, 10)

We hope and believe in Our Lord, even when sadness and death close in. I have had this thought since attending the prayer service for a wonderful high school teacher of mine who passed away prematurely during the last weekend before Lent. In the sadness surrounding his death, many expressed hope that God had taken this great man up to eternal life in Heaven. This eternal salvation is our hope. This is our Lenten mission: to be open to God’s grace and mercy. Thus I include the song “Lord of all Hopefulness”, sung at the prayer service, into this post. I think it accurately encapsulates the purpose of Lent:

 

 

 

 

Lord of all hopefulness, Lord of all joy,
Whose trust, ever childlike, no cares could destroy,
Be there at our waking, and give us, we pray,
Your bliss in our hearts, Lord, at the break of the day.
Lord of all eagerness, Lord of all faith,
Whose strong hands were skilled at the plane and the lathe,
Be there at our labours, and give us, we pray,
Your strength in our hearts, Lord, at the noon of the day.

Lord of all kindliness, Lord of all grace,
Your hands swift to welcome, your arms to embrace,
Be there at our homing, and give us, we pray,
Your love in our hearts, Lord, at the eve of the day.

Lord of all gentleness, Lord of all calm,
Whose voice is contentment, whose presence is balm,
Be there at our sleeping, and give us, we pray,
Your peace in our hearts, Lord, at the end of the day.

Lyrics: Jan Struther (1901-1953), Music: Traditional Irish (Slane)

Dear God, we ask that you be with us this Lent. May we repent, turn form sin, and believe in the good news. We are dust, and we shall return to dust. May you rain down your love upon us, so that we might be fertile soil for your message of faith, hope, and love for evermore. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.

WRS

 

 

 

* The reference to the “little way” is to that of Sainte Thérèse de Lisieux, who exemplified this way to perfection throughout her life. I am currently reading her autobiography, “The Story of a Soul”. More on this in a future post I hope. Sainte Thérèse de Lisieux, prie pour nous (pray for us)…

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