Lent Begins

Every year God gives us the opportunity to recall the great mysteries of our redemption by reliving them in the liturgical celebrations of the Church. Within the cycle of a year… “[the Church] unfolds the whole mystery of Christ,” and by “recalling thus the mysteries of redemption, the Church opens to the faithful the riches of her Lord’s powers and merits, so that these are in some way made present for all time, and the faithful are enabled to lay hold upon them and become filled with saving grace.”[1]

With a special emphasis, the Church prepares the faithful for the joy of the Resurrection at Easter by inviting us to share in the suffering of the Passion during Lent. “The season of Lent has a twofold character: primarily by recalling or preparing for baptism and by penance, it disposes the faithful, who more diligently hear the word of God and devote themselves to prayer, to celebrate the paschal mystery.”[2] Christ calls to the conversion of heart that allows us to live more deeply our baptismal promises. As the Gospel of Mark so concisely tells us, He calls to “repent, and believe in the gospel.”[3]

The Catechism teaches us that “Christ’s call to conversion continues to resound in the lives of Christians. This second conversion is an uninterrupted task for the whole Church who, ‘clasping sinners to her bosom, (is) at once holy and always in need of purification, (and) follows constantly the path of penance and renewal.’”[4] “Jesus’ call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, ‘sackcloth and ashes,’ fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance.”[5] Therefore it is fitting during this liturgical season to practice the exterior forms of penance that should symbolize and aid the process of interior conversion in order to prepare ourselves for Easter. We are invited to enter more deeply into the central mysteries of our faith through concrete practices of fasting, prayer and almsgiving, which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to the other.[6]

“The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice.”[7] During these liturgical periods, we have the opportunity by God’s grace to grow in the “virtue of penance which leads to the detestation of sin as an offence against God.”[8] In the times in which we live, we can ask this grace for ourselves and for all who live far from God’s loving Mercy and are ignorant of the reality of sin and the need for conversion. By living the exterior penances well, we hope to prepare ourselves for the grace of a deeper interior repentance which “is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed.”[9]

“The human heart is heavy and hardened. God must give man a new heart. Conversion is first of all a work of the grace of God who makes our hearts return to Him…God gives us the strength to begin anew. It is in discovering the greatness of God’s love that our heart is shaken by the horror and weight of sin and begins to fear offending God by sin and being separated from Him. the human heart is converted by looking upon Him whom our sins have pierced.”[10]

Especially in this season dedicated to looking at the One pierced by our sins, the Church invites us to respond in a corresponding way. “Conversion is accomplished in daily life by gestures of reconciliation, concern for the poor, the exercise and defence of justice and right, by the admission of faults to one’s brethren, fraternal correction, revision of life, examination of conscience, spiritual direction, acceptance of suffering, endurance of persecution for the sake of righteousness.”[11] Some of the particularly appropriate activities of the season of Lent are spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works). As already mentioned, these actions should be a result of the interior repentance that leads us to detest sins as an offense against the Most Holy One and express this conversion through concrete actions— “a desire and resolution to change one’s life, with hope in God’s mercy and trust in the help of His grace.”[12]

An incredibly efficacious means of aiding this interior conversion and purification is recourse to the sacrament of Reconciliation or Penance. The Code of Canon Law states that “in the sacrament of penance the faithful who confess their sins to a legitimate minister, are sorry for them, and intend to reform themselves obtain from God through the absolution imparted by the same minister forgiveness for the sins they have committed after baptism and, at the same, time are reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by sinning.”[13] This forgiveness and reconciliation is especially necessary for mortal (or grave) sins, which the Church in her Motherly wisdom and care tells us we need to confess at least once a year, to be purified, freed and reconciled to the Divine Spouse. However, it is of great benefit to the soul to confess venial sins, and regularly, in order to purify and sanctify us through the increase of sanctifying grace in our souls, to obtain greater peace, consolation and lights to understand ourselves and the ways of God, and to strengthen the soul in the spiritual combat.

For forty days, the Church invites us to turn more intensely to these penitential practices. Forty is a number rich in symbolism, recalling the forty years of the Israelites in the desert who because of the hardness of their hearts could not enter the Promised Land and of Christ’s example of fasting before the beginning of His public ministry. All that is good, beautiful and true calls for sacrifice, and what greater good is there than the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who has promised us a cross in following Him,[14] will not spar the reward if we are faithful in carrying our cross. That is what Easter teaches us. The better we live this experience of penance and self-denial during Lent, the more deeply we will come to understand the joy of the Resurrection at Easter. And this experience will help us long ever more for the everlasting joy of heaven. May our heavenly Mother, our Lady of Sorrows, grant us through her intercession the grace of a fruitful Lenten season.

[1] Constitution from the Vatican Council II about the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC), 102.

[2] SC, 109.

[3] Cf. Mk 1:15.

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), 1428.

[5] CCC, 1430.

[6] Cf. CCC, 1434.

[7] CCC, 1438.

[8] SC, 109.

[9] CCC, 1431.

[10] CCC, 1432.

[11] CCC, 1435.

[12] CCC, 1431.

[13] CIC, 959.

[14] Cf. Mt 16:24; Mk 8:34; Lk 9:23.

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