Over the years, I have noticed that the crowds that attend Mass on Ash Wednesday rival any other day of the year, including Easter and Christmas. This tells us there is something attractive about being called to renew our relationship with God, about the penitential nature of the day and season that is fundamentally about conversion.
Traditionally, the three pillars of the Lenten journey are prayer, fasting, and giving alms. Each of these practices are ways to renew our love for God and neighbor.
By definition, prayer is time spent with God. Giving alms is a concrete expression of compassion for someone else. Fasting is a combination of the two in that we fast to create more interior room for God through a symbolic participation in the redeeming, sacrificial love of Jesus, which allows us to share in the suffering of others.
By renewed attention to the ascetical practices of prayer, fasting and charity, we are exercising concretely our love for God and our neighbor. This is the conversion we are called to each day of our life, because the Christian life is to mirror of the life of Jesus.
We must be clear that our call to personal conversion is not some exercise in ‘self-improvement,’ but rather a renewal of our relationship with Jesus Christ. Our intimacy with Christ is essential for the mission of the church to continue and to bear fruit. Pope Francis put it in these words during a June 2017 address:
“Renewing oneself requires conversion, and it requires living mission as an ongoing opportunity to proclaim Christ, to let Him be encountered by bearing witness and making other participants in our personal encounter with Him.” (Address to Pontifical Missionary Societies June 2, 2017)
Lent is a season that draws the church’s attention to Jesus, particularly to all Jesus did for our healing and salvation. During these next six weeks, we are invited to pay close attention to the love of Jesus that led him to do so much for the good of others. His love was profoundly rooted in his love for and obedience to the Father. Implication for us: greater attention to our love for and obedience to the Father.
Likewise, his love for us was practical and concrete, in the way he received all who came to him for healing and forgiveness, in his authentic teaching, and most especially through his passion and death which led to the triumph of the resurrection. Implication for us: greater attention to the needs of others around us and greater willingness to acknowledge their human dignity and to offer something practical for their physical or emotional assistance.
When I was young and would complain about something my mother was quick to say: “Offer it up.” This was her way of helping my siblings and I to learn to remember the sufferings of Jesus and to unite our sufferings to his as a way of participating in the work of salvation. In many ways, this is the intention of the Lenten practices of fasting and practicing charity.
One sin we seldom reflect upon is the sin of omission. Where do we fail to love? How many missed opportunities do we have each day to do something for someone else and we fail to follow that interior ‘nudge’ to love – to act for the good of another? Prayer and fasting make us more sensitive to these interior movements of the heart.
In the daily exercise of life, there are so many things that are small sacrifices which annoy us, that we simply endure. This Lent, let us see these daily ‘crosses’ of tedious work or disappointments as opportunities to better appreciate and participate in the cross of Jesus for the good of others. Let this Lent help us recall there is no greater good than life itself, other than the gift of our salvation.
Each of these suggestions are meant to help us have a meaningful Lent. Ultimately, personal conversion is the path to a greater participation in our life in Christ. May we each experience that grace this Lent, that we may be prepared to celebrate with renewed zeal and passion the resurrection of Jesus Christ this Easter.