Well, here we are, day three of the Lenten journey. Just a couple of days ago, we kicked off the season with Ash Wednesday; and I’m sure most parish celebrants gave the faithful the annual crash-course on what it’s all about… the “reason for the season,” so to speak. More importantly, however, Catholics all over the world were brought to the sacrifice of the Mass, and were reminded of our spiritual birth as children of God, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But this phrase isn’t just a reminder of our creation, it’s a somber reminder of our mortality, and it truly brings to mind the sacrificial aspect of the holy life.
As a boy, I remember receiving my ashes on the forehead before school. In those days, albeit not that long ago, many children at my school would have the very same mark on their head. It wasn’t all that uncommon to see several of my friends with ashes. Nevertheless, I remember that in my younger years of school, I would find myself embarrassed to show my face, quite literally. I thought I looked like a fool with a smudge on my head; and, although for the most part I went unnoticed, there would inevitably be some kid who just couldn’t resist poking fun, which didn’t exactly help.
Along with that embarrassment came a sense of guilt, and rightly so. I felt guilty about my embarrassment of the tradition; in some ways, I felt like Peter the apostle. I felt that I needed to hide myself, hide my faith in order to feel safe. By the grace of God, however, in my later school years, I learned the value of this outward sign of God’s affection. It really wasn’t long before I found myself more excited, more willing than nervous to receive this wonderful gift. It was really quite a beautiful thing.
The very nature of the Church’s sacraments is an outward sign of God’s love. We have the honor of taking part in the divine life when we attend Mass, when we accept the gifts of the sacraments, and when we meet the precepts of the Church. In a similar way, we are given a much-needed opportunity to reflect on what divine life really entails during the precious Lenten season.
When someone thinks about lent, they tend to think about what they’re going to give up, or what they’re going to do “extra” to meet their quota. I, myself, tend to imagine everything purple. The church, the priest, heck, even the seasonal decorations at home tend to change. At Mass, I hear about the necessity of lent and the power it contains to transform souls through the use of the sacraments, alms-giving, sacrifice and a true desire to live as Christ.
The importance of Lent is somewhat complex. It offers a plethora of purposes and a ton of reasons for each of those purposes. For the sake of time (and my hands) though, I want to focus on two: First, the idea of dying to one’s own self in order to live for God’s will; second (but equally important), is the renewing of our baptismal vows to the God who loves us so. In both cases, we are called to live as witnesses to, and disciples of, God’s One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
With regard to the Lenten journey, the Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say, “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. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies and pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works)" (CCC 1438).
The value of the penitential life is accentuated during the time of Lent. Primarily, the faithful is encouraged to deny their own self, or to abstain of certain pleasantries. In addition to that, however, the faithful refrains from eating meat on Fridays. This is an incredibly powerful sacrifice for two reasons. First, for most people, especially in first world countries, giving up meat even for a single day seems to be quite a sacrifice. I know for me, at least, it’s one of the most difficult things to remember to do. I have meat pretty much every time I sit down to eat. So, this practice of abstinence forces me to keep my obligations at the forefront of my mind. In that way, I’m able to remain penitent in my actions and thoughts throughout the day.
Secondly, giving up meat is giving up flesh. The faithful can deny themselves of the meat, or the flesh, that they desire. Symbolically, it represents our obligation to deny our own flesh of its carnal desires. In fact, Mardi Gras, otherwise known as Fat Tuesday, is the Carnival prior to Ash Wednesday celebrated as a final farewell to meat; carnival, incidentally, derives from the Latin phrase, "Carne Vale," which literally means, "farewell to meat." When Christ went into the wilderness for 40 days (hence one reason for the 40 days of lent), he denied his flesh of food and drink, in preparation for the greater sacrifice of dying on the cross. As Catholics, we’re called to make the same sacrifices every single day. Not by starving or becoming dehydrated, of course, but by embracing the struggles of life, and, in some cases, even creating discomfort. You see, the Catholic Church (and God) greatly values our human suffering. It’s no coincidence that Christ was made to suffer as painfully as he did. Some of the greatest saints who ever lived supported the notion of suffering and mortification, the practice of “putting the flesh to death;” St. Teresa of Avila, St. Marguerite Marie Alacoque, St. Junipero Serra, St. Jean Vianney, the list goes on and on. Even St. Pope John Paul II once said, “Suffering, more than anything else, makes present in the history of humanity the powers of the Redemption.”
It’s no surprise that suffering is not a fun thing to do, don’t get me wrong. It’s not about fun. Lent, however, as the Catechism had mentioned, is an intense moment in the penitential practice. That is to say that Lent is supposed to serve as a jolt, a revitalization intended to reunite the human condition with the divine life. In scripture, we read, “And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5).
Even from the beginning, at the very roots of our faith, suffering and penitence has been greatly appreciated by the faithful. We unite with Christ in our suffering, and with it comes a special love, not only for what he did for us, but for the rewards we can expect in heaven, “...we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” (Romans 8:17). In the next verse, even, Saint Paul continues, “I consider that the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18). There’s no doubting the salvific power of suffering for Christ.
So this lent, I’m going to keep a few things in mind as I begin my penitential journey. I will not shy away from a good old fashioned opportunity to suffer for Christ (within reason, of course). It will be an honor and a privilege to suffer, to abstain, to love God with my works as well as my faith. Of course, I’m no different than anyone else. In fact, I have a very addictive nature to be honest. But, with the gift of God’s grace and the help of my fellow Catholics and of course my family, I hope to kick start a newfound vigor for our Holy Church, for God, and for the life he calls me to live.