A couple of weeks ago I was invited by a friend to go up a mountain. At more than a thousand feet, it was to be the highest that I’ve ever climbed so far. The temperature was freezing, and there was even snowfall. The climb was steep, and my friend warned about climbing to fast, because it was a long way up. He did right in telling me about it. We came upon a certain point wherein we had a very good view of the peak that was our destination. It seemed so near. My friend, who was familiar to the place, echoed my thoughts when he said, pointing at the summit, “There it is, our target. It seems so near, but don’t be fooled by it. We still have a long way to go”. Despite of that, knowing that we’ve made it halfway, and relieved by the sight of the summit, yet far but seemingly so near, did much to boost my waning energy. After catching my breath, I was on the move again, not stopping until I finally made it to the top. From there I could appreciate that all the effort was worthwhile; the view was breathtaking.
The Fourth Sunday, halfway towards the end of Lent, could be compared to climbing a mountain. In fact, somewhere in liturgical and patristic tradition, Lent is compared to a mountain that we climb, the summit of which we are able to celebrate the central mysteries of the work of our salvation. Halfway towards that peak, the somber curtain of penitential preparation opens up for a moment, offering us a glimpse of the glorious celebration of the Paschal Mystery, which culminates in Easter. Somehow, this lightens our ascent, and tempers our days of penance with the joy that always comes as the fruit of true repentance.
This Sunday is particularly called Laetare Sunday, the Sunday of gladness. The Christian message, the message of the Cross-, is one that leads to authentic joy. Ours is not a religion of sadness, of pain, of suffering: over and above all, it is one that always leads to an encounter with the Lord, who detests long, serious and sad faces.
With this, as the words of the Mass’ Opening prayer would say, “with prompt devotion and eager faith, we hasten towards the solemn celebrations to come”; to live Lent authentically means to hasten towards this encounter towards the Lord, who always waits for us. Let us hasten towards this encounter, done in a life of prayerful penance, in a life of charity towards neighbor, in the sacraments, especially that of Confession and the Eucharist. We hasten because we know that it is the Lord who awaits us at the summit of the mountain, which, as our Pope-Emeritus had said, is a place of prayer and encounter with the Lord, the Lord Jesus who is the source of our joy.
But the Gospel also tells of another thing. It is not only us who hasten to the Lord’s encounter. The Lord Jesus himself, through the parable of the prodigal son, tells us that in reality it is God who runs to encounter us. The pardon and forgiveness that we seek for our sins, and the fullness of life that comes from it, is not a result of our own efforts to better: it is rather a gift of his loving grace. It is always God who seeks us out. Much like the father in the parable, and infinitely more than the father, our Father in heaven who is rich in mercy always has the initiative in our conversion.
The words of the Lenten liturgy remind us always that today if we hear the voice of the Lord, we should not harden our hearts. Likewise, St. Paul reminds us that now is the acceptable time, now is the time of salvation (cf. 2 Cor 6: 2). Conversion is our response to the God who runs towards us, yearning to embrace us once again with a heart full of mercy. He is a Father who desires to cover us with his mercy like a new cloak, one who wishes to renew his covenant with us, like a ring being placed on our fingers; placing new sandals on our feet, he is a provident Father who wishes to teach us how to walk once again with him, as he walked with Adam before the fall.
Once again the message of personal conversion is made out to us. But this conversion is not only personal: Lent is not meant to be lived on one’s own. It is a time to live in sync with the whole Church. This is most especially true nowadays, now that all the more each of us should feel the need to be with the whole Church, united in prayer for the election of the new Holy Father. May we learn to ask not for ourselves alone, but that the universal—catholic—Church may always respond faithfully to the call of conversion, because only when we are faithful in heeding this call can we truly be able to listen to the Holy Spirit who speaks to us in the heart of the Church. This is not the time to bicker and argue who ever the best cardinal may be, as if it were a mere political process, or that I prefer this cardinal and despise this one; it is a time to pray for the whole Church, and for the College of Cardinals especially.
May we feel all the more in this special time of prayer and discernment the gentle motion of the Spirit who transforms those who know how to listen and accept him into their life.