Wouldn't we be just as ready for Easter if we didn't even have Lent? The prayers of the Church throughout Lent, especially the prayers in the Liturgy of the Hours, speak of turning away from sin, of being faithful to the Gospel, and of experiencing the freedom and joy that are ours when we are forgiven of our sins. Lent is a time of penance and forgiveness, but it is up to us to take advantage of its opportunity. It is up to us to cooperate with the grace offered by God during this sacred time. As Saint Paul writes to the Corinthians, "Now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation."
In just a few weeks, the Church will solemnly remember, and indeed re-live Christ's Last Supper, His suffering and death, and His resurrection. Those events, which were real, historical, concrete events, took place not in the abstract, but concretely and precisely for you and for me. Christ's actions during those fateful days in Jerusalem almost 2,000 years ago are not just dates to be recalled in history books. They are the events by which Christ made it possible for us to reach Heaven.
Because of that, we make the 40-day journey of Lent specifically to grow in our relationship with the God who loves us, so that the effects of Christ's redemptive work will take root more deeply and have a more profound effect in our lives. As unspectacular as our day-to-day can sometimes seem, each person's life has meaning precisely because the Son of God went to a violent death, and three days later gloriously arose, that He might redeem us. Thus, Lent is a time for returning to Christ.
One of the most practical, concrete and personally rewarding ways for us to return to Christ during the Lenten season is to approach the Sacrament of Penance, especially if we have been away from that Sacrament for a long time.
While it is always unpleasant and uncomfortable to confront the reality of our own sinfulness, such honesty with ourselves and with God is necessary if we are to experience His forgiveness and peace. Difficult as it may seem, and as much as we may try to reason ourselves out of receiving this Sacrament, it is nonetheless the means instituted by Christ Himself for us to unburden ourselves of our sins, and to receive from Him a total pardon, and with it, the peace that only He can give.
Indeed, this Sacrament produces in us "the joy of God's pardon, conferred through His priests, when one who has had the misfortune to offend God's infinite love repentantly returns to the arms of the Father," said Pope John Paul II less than a year into his pontificate.
In addition to this great Sacrament, the Church urges us to observe Lent by concrete acts of fasting, penance, and self-denial. These voluntary acts we make during Lent are not ends in themselves. We don't do penance and deny ourselves legitimate goods just for the sake of making ourselves miserable. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Lent is the time to exercise greater self-control over our appetites, so they don't exercise control over us.
The more control we have over our appetites we have, and the more we are attached to Christ and detached from the things of the world, the greater freedom we experience. Saint Francis de Sales writes that the self-denial that we practice during Lent "strengthens our spirit as it mortifies our flesh and our sensuality. It raises our soul to God. It gets rid of concupiscence by giving us the strength to overcome and to mortify our passions, and it disposes our heart that it may seek to please God in everything."
The practice of fasting, that is, our free decision to make do with less food for a certain period of time, has fallen on hard times. But fasting reminds us that the notion that our bodies and our souls have nothing to do with each other, though popular nowadays, is nonetheless false. The laudable practice of fasting teaches us that it is precisely in learning to be disciplined with our bodies, with our appetites, that we learn to be disciplined with our souls.
The same is true of the abstinence from meat that the Church asks of us on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent. Far from being arbitrary "rules" to be lightly overlooked, our abstaining from meat is a comparatively small sacrifice that both reminds us to be disciplined with our bodies and, if we are mindful of it, refocuses our attention on the supreme sacrifice made for each us by Christ on a Friday afternoon almost 2,000 years ago.
Whether by voluntary acts of self-denial, or by humbly approaching the Sacrament of Penance, everything we do during Lent should be aimed at growing closer to Christ, whose death made possible for us the hope of Heaven.
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