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.