It’s the most wonderful time of the year!!!
At least, it certainly can be. Ash Wednesday is the kickoff of the season of Lent, something many Evangelicals deride as yet another unbiblical Catholic practice. Other Protestants will semi-jokingly “give up something for Lent,” seeing it as a good opportunity to turn over a new leaf, kind of a second chance at one’s New Year’s resolutions. Still other Protestants – Lutherans and Episcopalians – will observe Lent as Catholics do, with ashes on the forehead and fasting. So, is it an unbiblical distraction, a holdover from the bad old Catholic days?
Just as the Israelites covered themselves in ashes and tore their clothing to show extreme distress and grief (in the poignant words of Daniel 9:3, “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes”), so we Christians allow ourselves to be signed with a cross of ashes to show that we sincerely repent of having sinned against the Lord our God, and that we plan to steadfastly amend our lives and sin no more. Just as Jesus lived for 40 days in the wilderness after He was baptized (Mt 4, Mk 1, Lk 4), so we also trudge through the wilderness of Lent in imitation of our Lord, asking the Father to make us like Him. Just as St. Paul wrote, “I buffet my body and make it my slave,” (1 Cor 9:27), so we also subject ourselves to some kind of penance (like getting 30 minutes less sleep every night so we can get up early to pray). We all know that modern-day, first-world Christians are very coddled. Mortification of the flesh (Mt 10:38; 16:24: Mk 8:34, Rom 8:13,17; 1 Cor 9:27, Phil 3:10; 1 Pet 2:21, 4:1,13) is exactly what we need to remind us of why we’re here – not to “live it up” but to “have life more abundantly” as we grow closer to our Savior who suffered for our sake. As the priest will admonish you tomorrow when he signs your forehead with the cross, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”
But – Christ has won the victory! What’s the point of rehashing all this mourning and repentance if we are Easter people??
Actually, there are two points. During Lent, Christians focus on:
- growing in their love for Christ Crucified
- learning to practice penance for their sins and for the sins of others
Catholics spend the 40 days of Lent meditating on Christ’s suffering. As St. Paul put it, “For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” But why? It’s over! It’s history!! Well, no – it’s ongoing in His Suffering body, the Church. Thus, we meditate on this particular aspect of Jesus’ Incarnation during Lent, learning to value what He suffered for us, to keep it in our hearts, to thank Him for it, as well as to pray for those caught up in His ongoing Passion. There’s something else that isn’t over yet – the battle against evil. Yes, Jesus won the victory on the Cross – yet our lives are lived out on the battlefield. For this reason we also practice self-mortification, doing penance for our sins of commission (the evil we have done) and omission (the good that we have failed to do), and for the sins of others which so grieve His Sacred Heart. Acts of penance are meant to be increasingly generous expressions of love for God in which we give up something good (various and sundry earthly pleasures) for the sake of something better (a deeper union with our God).
The Stations of the Cross are actually a marvelous way of meditating on Jesus’ suffering as well as practicing penance. Like a mini-pilgrimage, the Stations are a prayerful walk through the events of Christ’s Passion. Most parishes will offer a public observance of the Stations on Fridays during Lent. Catholics give up their Friday evenings (penance) to assemble at their parish and pray the Stations (meditation). The result, after a half-hour spent in this observance, should be a deeper relationship with Jesus, by Whose holy Cross the world has been redeemed.
Looking for something for the other days of Lent? Try reciting the Prayer Before a Crucifix:
Behold, O kind and most sweet Jesus, I cast myself upon my knees in Thy sight, and with the most fervent desire of my soul I pray and beseech Thee that Thou wouldst impress upon my heart lively sentiments of faith, hope, and charity, with true contrition for my sins, and a firm purpose of amendment, while with deep affection and grief of soul, I ponder within myself, and mentally contemplate Thy five Most Precious Wounds, having before my eyes that which David, the Prophet, spoke of Thee, my Jesus: “They have pierced My hands and My feet; they have numbered all My bones.”
As the U.S. bishops remind us:
We are called not just to abstain from sin during Lent, but to true conversion of our hearts and minds as followers of Christ.
“True conversion of our hearts and minds as followers of Christ” – what’d I tell ya? It’s the MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF THE YEAR!
Grant us, Lord, the grace to begin the Christian’s war of defense with holy fasts:
that as we do battle with the spirits of evil, we may be protected by the help of self-denial,
through Christ our Lord. Amen
On the memorial of St. Casimir Jagiellon
Deo omnis gloria!