Lent is a time of year which, for most practicing Christians, is earnestly expected and beloved, in spite of, or perhaps because of, its usual austerity.
As Christianity largely developed in the temperate Northern Hemisphere, the experience of most Christians throughout history has been these penitential days falling in the midst of a natural world characterized by its own austerities: the short days, the barrenness of nature, the lack of vegetation.
Yet the season of Lent, much like Advent, is also a season of hope and sober joy as the dawn of Easter approaches. Hence the Church in its ancient Lenten hymns usually closes before the doxology with exultant, yet restrained, notes:
Dies venit, dies tua, per quam reflorent omnia, laetemur in hac ut tuae per hanc reducti gratiae.
“The day comes, your day, [Easter] through which all things bloom anew. May we rejoice in this [day], having been led by it to your grace.”
The emphasis on that Dies, the great day of Easter, is juxtaposed masterfully with the constant refrain from Psalm 95, “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” In a sense, the great day of Resurrection is linked specifically by the Church’s liturgy to the today of our personal conversion and repentance. The seeds of resurrection have already been sown in us, if we have begun to turn anew to God.
Psalm 95, which is repeated in the Gospel Acclamation of Ash Wednesday, reminds us that we too inhabit an in-between world, a journey from sin and into righteousness. The daily readings, especially from the Liturgy Hours, represent to us the Exodus journey of the people of Israel out of slavery as an interpretive key to view our own Lenten journey. Firstly, we recognize the acts of Christ’s own life as our head and redeemer, as he combated the forces of evil and of sin. We participate in that same great combat by virtue of our Baptismal participation in his life, and if we are successful in incorporating our efforts into him and into the grace he offers, we too can experience the power of the Divine Life growing within us.
It may be truly said that Lent is an annual ‘reality check’ for the Christian. That is, we are invited to humble ourselves and to associate ourselves with the Man of Sorrows of the Gospels, and to see how we measure up to him. We gaze in wonder at his beneficence and magnanimity, and we likewise marvel at the obstinacy, spiritual blindness, and cold indifference which Our Blessed Lord met during his earthly life.
People tend to look at Lent primarily through the lens of its austerities, but that it not the most helpful way of approaching this season. The traditional practices of fasting, prayer and almsgiving are the staple practices of any Christian spirituality. They ought to be a constant practice, not just a Lenten one. Yet their intensification is meant to force the issue for us, that above all, to borrow from the words of the spiritual writer Father Edward Leen, the purpose of life is “not to gratify us, but to purify us”. That is, the purpose of life is to expand our capacity to love, and our capacity to receive bliss. Our lives will one day be measured completely by this, and by this alone.
Most people today believe that they are entitled to heaven, which is in fact a diabolical form of presumption. What most people do not recognize is that they are in fact constitutionally incapable of entering heaven, both because of the wound of original sin, and the further battering of serious personal sin. Willfully practiced and unrepented of sin does not simply make us bad, it makes us closed to the ultimate source of life, and so the ultimate source of joy. Lent, especially with its emphasis on repentance and confession (which remove personal sin) and a renewal of baptismal commitment (which removes original and personal sin), strike at the root of these two deep impediments to grace.
In the collision course with ourselves that Lent engineers, we experience, if we are doing it well, the intense tension between God’s goodness and our wickedness. Yet it is a journey into the light.
I wish all of you a Happy Lent of 2019, that we may greet together that great day of Resurrection Joy, having had our hearts expanded, and led back to grace.