Lent is upon us and the “A” word has a rest until early April. As this season of penitential spirit begins, marked by the somber color of purple for the next six weeks, we have our foreheads stained by the mark of a cross with ashes from burnt palm leaves. It is a temporary tattoo which immediately identifies us as a Christian. It reminds us of the temporary nature of all things, especially of our own mortality. Yet, as Christians we do not despair, we have hope in Christ.
If you go out into the public, marked with that black cross, you will likely find others branded the same or you will encounter an opportunity to explain its meaning and purpose. Then again, you may well be reminded by a bank teller, a restaurant host, a grocery store clerk, your mail carrier, or whoever who will state: “You have dirt on your forehead.” True, I do, but its meaning is more than what appears. Ah, the door is now open for you to explain – will you take the bait? In the end what is more important: that I be seen with that cross or I live its truth?
The clarion call we hear as this season begins: “Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God.” (Joel 2: 12). It is a call ever ancient and new. There has never been, and this side of the second coming of Christ, there never will be a generation of humans without a need to reform. Original sin guarantees that one.
So, this is our graced time to prepare for the central mystery of the Christian faith: the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, that mystery of faith, the joy and event of our salvation and the ultimate triumph over sin and death. “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus assures us and we need to get ready.
So we deny ourselves. We go without, we say “no, not yet” to moments and opportunities that we might normally not hesitate to say “yes, right now.” We fast from to make room for. It is good that we deny ourselves, discipline our instincts, and consciously resist temptation for a greater good. What is that greater good? An empty stomach with hunger pains? No, the grace to have a will that is strengthened by healthy denial to do the right thing, the Christ-like thing in order to choose the higher road rather than be hum-drum with the lowest common denominator for nothing more than a temporary pleasure.
We pray more. Spend more time with the Word of God, the holy Scriptures, to fall more deeply in love and come to know more intimately Jesus Christ. The more we come to know of him, the more evident becomes our own imperfection. What a grace that is! The more we know what Christ calls us to be the more we see how short we have fallen. Don’t despair. Our first reading for Ash Wednesday reminds us: “For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment. Perhaps he will again relent and leave behind him a blessing, Offerings and libations for the LORD, your God.” (Joel 2: 13). Why fear a God of mercy? The worst that can happen is that we are forgiven and grow in virtue and holiness. Not a bad lot.
Then we give alms. What are alms? Works of charity – a love that sacrifices my own interests and satisfaction in favor of another. Money is good to share. It can gain positive results when used wisely. But, what about our personal time? Can’t I sacrifice some of that for you? But, if I give you what I would normally give myself, what have I to gain? Well, if that’s our reason for giving, then we maybe should not. But, if I give without expecting a return because giving is good to do and I then imitate the overwhelming generosity of a God who will never be out done, then I leave any benefit up to him. Our time, talent, and treasure, if it is truly sacrificial, is not measured out. Did Jesus say, “Ok, I’ll go to that cross only if I know there’s something in it for me?” I think not.
Sin is real, the demons are real, and temptation is real. We are in a spiritual battle with forces that have our worst interest at heart. “Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil. For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens.” (Eph 6: 11-12).
While all sin is not the result of the evil ones only, we do have a free will, all we need do is listen to the evening news to know that evil is rampant in parts of the world today. An evil that is being manipulated, influenced, and inspired by forces that are bent on destruction and division.
But, God’s love is always greater. Temptation is like a counterfeit dollar sometimes. Temptation may present itself in very subtle ways. It may look like a good – a counterfeit of what is good – but like fake money, it has no value.
Stay close to the Lord this Lent: pray, fast, be generous with others, attend Mass more frequently than only on weekends if possible, read and pray over the scriptures, pray the rosary more often, forgive those who have hurt you, go to confession, pray the stations of the cross, live a life more compatible with the Gospel of Christ, and enjoy the spiritual, moral, and emotional benefits of a new and refreshed faith that is an open door when we proclaim: “Christ is risen indeed!”
May the Spirit of peace bring us a holy Lent.