The words of the Apostle Paul stir us once again as we enter into the liturgical time of Lent. This is another of the means that the Church proportions to us as an aid in the work of our sanctification. This is one thing that we have to keep in mind as we begin this tiempo fuerte, as they say it in Spanish, this opportune time. It’s a fact that many people look to Lent as a time of penance, a time of sacrifice, self-denial, mortification and good works. A lot of us associate this season with meatless Fridays and violet vestments. All of these is correct, however, when we think that this all there is to this liturgical season, we would be giving more attention to the wrappings of the gift rather than to the contents of the gift itself. For truly, Lent is a gift given to us by the liturgical tradition of the Church; it is a time set aside especially so that we may live more intensely our vocation to holiness. Lent is all about sanctification; it’s about making oneself more beautiful, not merely through one’s effort, but also importantly with the grace that comes from the Lord, without whom we can do nothing, apart from whom we cannot bear fruit (cfr. Jn 15: 5).
Responding to the universal call to holiness is what Lent is all about: all of the traditional practices that we have have their root in this. We fast and abstain, not because we want to be hungry, but because we wish to atone for our sins, which are obstacles to the grace of God, and to disciple ourselves. we live mortification more intensely, not for any masochistic reason—because we love to inflict pain ourselves—but rather because we want to unite ourselves with the passion of the Lord on the Cross, which is the only way to holiness. We put more effort in living the virtue of charity, because in doing so we begin to be more like God, who is love (cfr. 1 Jn 3:14).
As St.Paul had expressed it, there is no better time in responding to this call to be holy than the present moment. In God there is no past nor future, only the present. As they say, God, for all of His omniscience, His being all-knowing, knows only adverb of time: NOW. Saying “yes” to God’s call to share His life, even while still here on earth (making our life a prelude to Heaven), means accepting it NOW. We have to respond positively to this invitation in the “now” of my daily, present condition, whether as a student, a banker, a teacher, a parent, a spouse, a priest, a policeman, a politician: each in his or her own particular circumstance in life; concretely: in one’s dealings with other people, in one’s job, in how one uses his free time, in one’s conversations with others. But all of these will have their foundation in the most important relationship that he or she could ever have: that intimate relationship with the Lord.
I would wish to share with you certain insights that I myself have received as a fruit of prayer and reflection. Lent is a time so rich that prudent planning and much attention could allow us to live these Lenten weeks (there are five at least) to our best advantage, not only spiritual, but also (and why not?) human.
1. As we begin to climb this sacred mountain towards the peak that is Easter, let us be aided by how the ancient Christians, as we could see from the teachings of the Church Fathers have understood Lent. Earlier on we have mentioned that everything is rooted in our struggle towards holiness. For Christians, back then as nowadays, holiness is none else but identification with Christ, and initially, there is no other time when the Christian is so much like Christ than in his or her baptism. Lent is the long journey that early catechumens (people preparing themselves for baptism) had to make before being baptized. One has to walk for forty days and nights through the hot and arid desert of repentance, before being able to be submerged in the waters of new life and grace, which are those of the sacrament of baptism. All throughout Lent, we walk under cover of darkness, until we come at last to the celebration of that morning that knows no end: Easter, when the whole person is bathed in the light of the Risen Christ. No wonder that the early Christians—especially those from the East—also considered it as the Illumination: one closer step into sharing the divinity of God. In baptism we have been inserted into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ: we die with Him and we rise with Him to new life. Lent therefore is a time for us to be reminded of the promises that we had made (through the faith of the Church) in Baptism, which we have repeated in Confirmation, and which we renew in the Eucharist: to reject sin and to accept a life lived in God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To live as a child of God, a member of the Body of Christ that is the Church, and as the temple where the Spirit of God has His home.
2. And talking about us being temples of the Holy Spirit allows us to be reminded also of the fact that God nearer to us than we to ourselves, according to that famous phrase of St. Augustine, that great lover of the Lord. This ought to encourage us to go to Him more often in prayer, most especially during this time: Lent is decidedly a time of prayer and for prayer. Prayer is nothing more than being with the One who loves as the most, paraphrasing the words of another great lover, St. Teresa of Avila. It’s not all about methods or techniques or formulas (though these may help): prayer is more about BEING; it’s saying “Lord, I’m here”! It’s imitating Mary our Mother who said “behold the handmaid of the Lord”. What better example of prayer could we have than our Mother, who was always there in the silence of God’s presence, listening, contemplating, in worship. It is a privileged time for us to talk to the Lord about our own struggles, of those whom we hold dear, of those who make us suffer greatly; a time to express to Him our dreams and our hopes, a time to ask for strength, to be invigorated. God’s presence always energizes, always gives strength. Didn’t he not say: “Come to me, all you who are weary and are burdened, and I will refresh you”? What heart could reject such an invitation? Lent gives us the opportunity to rest in God praying. It is always a good idea to take advantage of retreats usually given during this time: these are small pockets of prayer. With these, we could also establish similar pockets of prayer throughout our day: what are five minutes, fifteen minutes that we take off from our daily schedule? With five, fifteen or even thirty (depending on one’s condition and schedule) minutes with the Lord, we have nothing to lose; on the contrary, we have a lot to gain.
3. Lent is a time for living the virtue of charity, especially with others, more intensely, remembering that charity covers a multitude of sins (cfr. 1 P 4:8). The Holy Father, as is his practice every start of Lent, has addressed to each of us a letter, in which he precisely encourages us to live these days of Lent concerning ourselves not only with our own needs, but also with those of the people who live around us. But this concern is not only limited to material needs; it is also important that we help each other out in our personal struggle to live our common vocation to be holy. It is not enough that we practice the corporal works of mercy (feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, visit the imprisoned, bury the dead); it is precise that we do the spiritual works as well (counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish sinners, comfort the afflicted, forgive offenses, bear wrongs patiently, pray for the living and the dead). Pope Benedict XVI observed that “today in general, we are very sensitive to the idea of charity and caring about the physical and material well-being of others, but almost completely silent about our spiritual responsibility towards our brothers and sisters” (Message for Lent 2012). We have been inattentive of the fact that the brother or sister beside us is not only a body, but he is also an embodied spirit, a creature with a rational soul that needs to be placed in contact with God’s grace, a soul that also cries out for salvation. Whenever we try to bring not only ourselves but also our loved ones into the right path, always with love and affection, keeping far from an arrogant, know-it-all and holier-than-thou attitude; whenever we make it easier for others to encounter Christ, THEN, we could say that for one part, we are living well the spirit of Lent. That we excel in love is important, for what is a Christian without love? These days, here in Pamplona, we are having perfectly blue skies, but very cold weather, such that even the sun is incapable of warming us on the street. For a Filipino (as I have commented to a Spaniard friend), a sun that does not warm one up is unthinkable: so is the Christian who does not love. In what concrete way could I live more intensely this concern for others?
4. One cannot talk enough, of course, of the fact that Lent is also a privileged time of reconciliation with God. When was the last time that you confessed? When was the last time that you hurled all that baggage that you’ve been carrying for so long, into the bottomless abyss of Divine Mercy? Nobody can cast that weight from you but yourself; nobody can heal your burdened heart than God Himself.
My prayer is that the end of this season of penance may find us with lives patterned after the passion and death of Jesus Christ, and with hearts that are pure so as to be able to celebrate with joy the feast of the Resurrection of Our Lord.
ASH WEDNESDAY 2012
22 FEBRUARY 2012