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A season of new beginnings

February 18, 2018
Archbishop Paul S. Coakley

Each year, the Church offers us the season of Lent as a time of repentance and renewal. We began our Lenten journey last week on Ash Wednesday. Though not a Holy Day of Obligation, Ash Wednesday liturgies are among the most popular and well-attended of the whole year.

It resonates with a deep yearning and recognition within us. As we are signed with ashes, we are reminded of our own mortality. We come from dust and to dust we shall return.

We are called to repent and believe the Good News: God loves us. He sent his Son Jesus to suffer and die for us. He has risen from the dead and shares his new life with us. This is the heart of the Gospel. Lent refocuses our attention on this message of salvation, this good news. Lent is a season of new beginnings.

From the earliest Christian centuries, Lent was the time of final preparation and purification for men, women and families preparing for Baptism. These catechumens would celebrate Baptism and their full initiation into the Church during the Easter Vigil.

Eventually, Lent became a season of special observance for all the members of the Church who accompanied the catechumens by their prayers, and prepared to renew their own Baptismal promises at Easter. Such is the rich meaning of this season still today.

We begin the Lenten journey by being signed with ashes on Ash Wednesday. It leads to the glorious celebration of our victory over sin during the Paschal Triduum. We share Jesus’ paschal journey through death to new life.

Lent is a season of repentance during which we acknowledge our sins, seek mercy and pray for a change of heart. Unfortunately, we sometimes satisfy ourselves with nominal and superficial gestures during Lent. The Lord offers us more. The true grace of Lent invites us to profound repentance and a reordering of all that is disordered in our lives.

In the Gospel for the Mass of Ash Wednesday, Jesus challenges us to be sure that our religious observances flow from an interior disposition of heart that seeks to please God rather than impress others: “Be on guard against performing religious acts for people to see.” Our Lenten observances need to have both an inner quality and an outward expression.

In that same Gospel, Jesus cites the three traditional practices of the Lenten season: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. These practices are valid for all time. We can be creative in how we use them, but it is important that our Lenten observances involve some aspect of all three.

Fasting is a way of expressing our prayer bodily while seeking freedom from self-indulgent appetites. We are obligated to fast and abstain from meat on certain days of Lent. But, fasting can be more. We can fast or abstain from other comforts and distracting habits such as social media, television, etc.

Prayer is what gives our fasting and other works of penance a true interior quality.

Almsgiving is important so that our spiritual exercises do not turn us in on ourselves, but help us reach out to others in mercy. The Lenten journey helps us to express our repentance by opening our hearts both to the Lord and to our brothers and sisters, especially the poor.

Many individuals, families and parishes have their special Lenten customs. The traditional Stations of the Cross on Fridays are a tried and true way of accompanying the Lord on the journey of his bitter passion.

Reading and praying with the Scriptures, especially the liturgical readings of each day can make this a profoundly rich season of grace. Some make the commitment to attend weekday Masses more frequently. Setting aside something for the poor as the fruit of our own self-denial is an important way of combining the disciplines of fasting and almsgiving.

The CRS Rice Bowl is a practical aid for families, classrooms and individuals to help us practice almsgiving. (There are even catechetical materials and a mobile app for the CRS Rice Bowl available at crs.org.)

Practicing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy can guide our Lenten practice and make it even more fruitful. Visiting the sick, the homebound or the incarcerated, volunteering to help feed the hungry or leading a clothing drive in the community are among the many ways we are invited to enter fully into the season of Lent so as to come to a profound and lasting change of heart.

The ways of observing Lent can be as numerous and varied as we are creative. Nonetheless, the Church asks that we be mindful of the serious obligation to abstain from meat on the Fridays of Lent, and to fast and abstain on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Some of us are procrastinators. We may wait until Lent is nearly over before getting started. Now is the time to prayerfully decide how the Lord is calling us to observe this season. 

What are the sins that we need to uproot from our lives? What are the virtues that we need to cultivate? What are the steps that we need to take to realize these desires? Start with these questions and formulate a simple and realistic plan.

Lent is a shared journey of faith. Let us pray for one another.