The Lenten journey on which embark today only makes sense in the light of the goal that lies at the end of that road. The call to repentance which we hear in the season of Lent must be shaped by the clear conviction about why we are called to repent—called so that we can fulfill our destiny to be the Father’s own adopted sons and daughters, to be by grace what Jesus is by nature. While it’s accurate to say that we’re made for Heaven, that might seem bland unless we testify to the marvel of what Heaven is: sharing in the life of the Holy Trinity forever.
The announcement that God offers us this happiness, which is so far beyond what we deserve, finds an echo in the hearts of our listeners. It may sound too good to be true, but the goodness of it has its own power to persuade, to persuade one to set out once more on the path of repentance. Our Lenten journey of prayer, penance, and almsgiving must be imbued by the clear truth that our sacrifices here on Earth are a means by which to store up treasures in Heaven—treasures that are incomparably greater than anything we could ever experience here on Earth.
In the 13thchapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a “pearl of great price.” When it is found, one sells “all he has” to purchase the field where it is contained. If we miss this context for all of the other truths we’ll consider during Lent, we are like the older brother in the Prodigal Son; we tarry for a taskmaster rather than cooperate with a loving Father.
As you make your plans for Lenten prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, spend 10 minutes in quiet prayer today considering this truth of our relationship with God that St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him. In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ, in accord with the favor of his will, for the praise of the glory of his grace that he granted us in the beloved.”
Archbishop Vigneron will share the 10 truths on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout Lent. Save this article, or connect with @utgdetroit on social media to follow along.
Basic Truth 1: Failure is possible
In the writing of the prophet Jeremiah, we hear the harrowing words of the Lord: “And to this people you shall say: Thus says the LORD: See, I am giving you a choice between the way to life and the way to death” (Jer 21: 8).
The invitation to repent from sin only makes sense if there are consequences to one’s actions. We must remember that God only shares his saving communion with those who chose it. God made us free, free to determine what sort of character we would take on ourselves by our actions. Eternal life is eternal friendship with the Lord, and he doesn’t force that on anyone. In fact, for those who chose by their sins to rebel against God’s will for us, being with him would be a very hell. Heaven and hell are real possibilities. God doesn’t so much “send” sinners to hell, but rather respects their free choice to be his enemies. Heaven and hell are real possibilities.
Our penances during Lent also only make sense if there are consequences to one’s actions. Because there is a danger, as St. Paul says to Timothy, of “making a shipwreck of [one’s] faith” by falling away, either through an overt and deliberate act or through the cooling of our love and commitment to Jesus, we fast and offer sacrifices during Lent. In the apostolic age, the world was a hostile place for men and women of faith. Our world today mirrors this in many ways, as they are myriad opportunities for us to lose our faith in Jesus Christ as our central guiding principle.
Practical response: St. Ignatius of Loyola advises us when making an important decision, to contemplate the day of our death and from there to consider what we wish we would have done with this decision before us today. Using this exercise, think about what option Christ is offering you today to choose the way of life and to turn away from the way of death.
Basic Truth 2: God’s plan for our happiness has been mangled, but not beyond repair
“Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, you shall not eat from it, … by the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground, from which you were taken; for you are dust and to dust you shall return” Gen 3: 17, 19).
As I reflect on this truth, it strikes me that this is probably the easiest one for us all to understand. Each of us have some personal hurt, some suffering, some tragedy, as well as recognizing the ills of our society. There isn’t one person among us whose brightest hopes have not been blighted at one time or another.
Our Lenten call to repentance is about receiving the solution God in his compassion offers us to the problem of evil. It is by acknowledging the bad news that the Good News looks really good. We live in a broken world, mired by sin almost everywhere we look. We acknowledge our inability to experience fully the life God has called us to. Even the greatest joy this world offers is only fleeting, followed by other times of suffering or pain.
During Lent we intentionally deprive ourselves of some of the goods of this world to share in the atonement for our sins and the sins of the whole world. This time of penance is a reminder to keep our eyes fixed on a happiness that this world – and those “of this world” – can never know. It is a happiness that is only fully realized in Christ’s Passion and Resurrection and a happiness in which we will participate fully in heaven.
Practical Response: Spend time this week pondering over the paradox of Christian discipleship which is a reminder of the futility of the promises of this world’s happiness, remembering that whatever hope or desire we have which is not placed into the hands of Jesus, will ultimately be lost:
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay everyone according to his conduct.”
Basic Truth 3: Sin is the Problem
“Through one person sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all, inasmuch as all sinned” (Rm 5: 12).
Building on our acknowledging the problem of evil, whether moral or physical, I need to be clear about the diagnosis. God did not make suffering and death; he is a God of the living, bountiful in sharing life. The blight in human existence is caused by separation from him. “Sin entered the world,” as St. Paul says, the Fall happened because our First Parents – Adam and Eve – believed a lie. They insisted on finding happiness their own way, not God’s way, and in so doing they ruptured their friendship with him, the very relationship on which their happiness depended. What Satan beguiled them into thinking would make them happy brought them, and all of us coming after them, misery.
Sin continues this same pattern in our lives. We can see this time and again; I am deceived into thinking that happiness comes from going my own way, insisting on my own will, or thinking about myself apart from God. Sin deceives us into thinking that obedience to God and living as his faithful son or daughter is a threat to my happiness.
Because we know that sin leads to death, our Lenten observances of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are a direct response to sin. It is a way we acknowledge the eternal danger of sin and resolve each year to pro-actively root out sin in our lives. Fasting is a particular way we fight against sin and its hold on our lives.
Practical Response: To help root out sin in your life, make a particular resolution to fast from something this week. Pray daily “With the help of God’s grace, I say no to _____ so that I can say a greater yes to God.”
Basic Truth 4: We are all sinners
“If we say, ‘We are without sin,’ we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn 1: 8).
After considering a world “mangled” by sin, I need realize that I ratify this rebellion of Adam and Eve by my own personal sins. We are born with an appetite for rebellion, with a hunger for what is toxic. We, too, want to put ourselves in the place of God to rule over our own lives. This is sin: to act contrary to God’s plan for my flourishing – to think I know better – in my thoughts and words, in what I do or fail to do.
The results of sin are always harmful to myself, sometimes to the point of being catastrophic if the lie is grave. We are all sinners, and each of us needs to hear the call to repentance.
Lent begins with a call to “repent and believe in the Gospel.” Repentance is needed for each of us and for all of us. Many of the Scripture readings, including the psalms, which are used during Lent drive this theme home for us. The preaching we hear during Lent is meant to help us realize the danger of sin, the presence of sin, and the response to sin. Acknowledging my own sinfulness is prerequisite for God’s forgiveness. This forgiveness is freely given to all who humble themselves and receive it from God, through the ministry of his Church.
Practical response: Make a good sacramental confession this Lent.
Basic Truth 5: We need help
“If you, LORD, keep account of sins, Lord, who can stand?” (Ps 130: 3),
Our own experience confirms that we are powerless to remedy the damage sin works in our lives. Try as we might, we cannot construct a paradise on earth. Life always ends in death. No amount of fame, fortune, power, or pleasure can ultimately save us. Any foundation upon which we build our lives in this world will ultimately disappoint us.
And as for our aspirations to virtue and holiness, we make St. Paul’s words our own, “For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want” (Rm 7: 19). Our personal impotence to maintain a right relationship with God reveals the truth that we need help. On my own, I cannot restore the bond with God that is fractured through sin, or to repair the evil fruit of these evil choices. Therefore, without God I am utterly lost.
The Good News I am invited to hear this Lent is the news of repentance, of turning back to God by his grace. It is an invitation to a dependency on God as my only hope for redemption. He knows all of my failing, all of my faults and imperfections. He knows my weaknesses and my sins. And yet he offers me the help which is far greater than food to the starving or a parachute to one falling out of an airplane. His help is eternal salvation.
Practical response: Make the Stations of the Cross at least once this Lent.
Basic Truth 6: God has intervened in person to deliver us from the wreckage
“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption” (Gal 4: 4-5).
From the first confrontation with Adam and Eve after their rebellion, God promised a remedy for the wreck caused by sin. Anyone of us, using a seemingly shrewd calculation of weighing “pluses vs. minuses,” might have thought it better to end the human race and make some sort of a fresh start; God, however, remained faithful to his purpose, faithful to his creation by becoming part of it, in order to win it back. According to a plan that unfolded across the ages, in the fulness of time he sent his Son to deliver us from the tragedy of our own making. The motive: love – that pure, unmerited love that goes by the name of “mercy.”
I am invited to pivot from acknowledging the reality of the problem to embracing the solution. The Good News might sound too good to be true; but it is real. God has intervened in person to deliver us from this wreckage. He has done for us what would have been impossible for us to do for ourselves. The Incarnation bridges the infinite gulf between God and man. And this is only done by God who becomes man. God want us back home with him, and so badly that’s he come for us himself.
Practical response: Pray on prayer “Jesus, true God and true man, I trust in you” on each bead of your Rosary.
Basic Truth 7: The cross is just the right sort of remedy
“[Caiaphas] prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not only for the nation, but also to gather into one the dispersed children of God” (Jn 11: 51-52).
The heart of the call to reconciliation is a call to come to “Christ Jesus, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2: 2). It is here that the remedy for sin and death is to be found. St. Paul made this the bedrock of his own preaching. At times he was successful and at other times he was not. But he was always faithful to this call to preach the cross.
Forgiveness from sin has been won for us through the cross. Eternal life has been won for us through the cross. God’s love for us has been manifested for us through the cross. Each of us is called to remember that incalculable gift that Jesus – the Word-made-flesh – offers to his Father through his death. This is perfect obedience and perfect love which the Father is justly due. Because Jesus is a “man like us in all things but sin” we share in his victory, if we persevere with him. In our being joined to that filial self-giving our rebellious self-centeredness is overcome. Now, we, too, with Jesus can say “Abba, Father,” and mean it. This is grace.
Practical response: Spend 10 minutes of quiet prayer before an image of the Crucifixion asking Jesus: “Teach me to love as you love.”
Basic Truth 8: To receive the offered deliverance, we must change
“I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish…” (Lk 13:3).
Jesus was clear from the start: accepting the Good News of our deliverance requires that we repent. The gift of new life must be lived out. If we are adopted as God’s sons and daughters, we must live the very life of God the Son, the life of total self-abandonment to the Father, the life of unconditional obedience to his will.
We must change by letting the Holy Spirit transform us, so that we have the heart and mind of Jesus. We must change so that we recognize that this new life in the Holy Spirit is better than one’s life in the world, that it is better to lose the whole world than to lose Jesus, that death is better than mortal sin. This change will cost, will not come easily. But this change is necessary, and its fruit is a blessing for my life.
Whatever the price, whatever the cost, I must accept the call from the Lord to conversion. This means that no part of my life can be cut off from God’s grace or God’s intervention. There are no daytime disciples or fair-weather followers. To be a Christian is to accept Jesus as Lord and to let him change me.
Practical response: Choose one part of your life where conversion is still at work and offer this part of you anew to the Lord in prayer.
Basic Truth 9: The narrow way is found in the Church
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few” (Mt 7: 13-14).
Jesus speaks with unflinching realism about the process of change that leads to the salvation proclaimed by the Gospel. The way home to the Father will not be easy; it wasn’t for him, the Only Begotten Son; it won’t be for us, sons and daughters by adoption. We need to hear this challenging truth as good news which Christ offers to us for our salvation. Just as much, we also need to hear that Jesus offers us his own strength to walk the narrow road. This knowledge and this grace are ours in the Church, especially in the Scriptures and the Sacraments. In the Church we walk this narrow way together; we are part of a community that has repentance as a “life-style commitment.”
Practical response: Skip a meal this week as an act of self-denial.
Basic Truth 10: For the baptized, the confessional is the gate to get back on to the narrow way
“He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them…’” (Jn 20: 22-23)
The Church’s invitation to a life of grace comes through the sacrament of Baptism. In this soul-altering gift from God, we are conformed to Christ and receive adopted sonship (or daughter-ship) of the Father. But we know that the grace of baptism can be eroded by our sins. The Church – in obedience to Christ – offers us a restoration of this baptismal grace.
The sacrament of Confession is this renewed grace. It is especially apt to receive the make a good sacramental confession during Lent. In the Archdiocese of Detroit, there are amply opportunities to do this in the time remaining before Easter. We have created an easy way to avail yourself to this sacrament by knowing where and when you can go to confession anywhere in Southeast Michigan at www.confessionsfinder.org/.
But the gift of confession is not simply for the season of Lent. It is a year-round offer from the Lord, mediated through his Church, for his disciples to be renewed in the grace of repentance. For Catholics, the confessional is the most effective gate on to the narrow road that leads to life. We neglect to use it at our peril, our eternal peril.
Practical response: make a commitment to go to confession at least once each month for the rest of 2021.
These ten truths we have looked at during Lent are meant to help each of us grow closer to Christ during our journey to Easter. Jesus tells us: “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (Jn. 8:32). Hearing the truth of the Gospel, the truth of the words of Jesus, is the only sure path to human flourishing.
The words of Jesus are the words of God’s mercy and love. Because of our fallen human nature, we do not always receive them as such. While they are always in accord with natural law and do not contradict our reason, his words require humility to accept them. He does not speak as others do but he tells us that “I say only what the Father taught me” (Jn. 8:28). Therefore we must accept his words with the humble heart of a child, trusting these words from his Father.
We have reflected on these truths because the truth sets us free. It frees us to live no longer for ourselves or for the things of this world. The eternal truth Jesus brings frees us to live for eternity, to be brought into the house of the Father. This freedom comes from a life of faith. So our call during Holy Week is to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the truth, and to root our lives more firmly on him than on anything else. He is the truth and the truth sets us free.