Tag Archives: lent

Lent: the verification if Christ really came to save us

Being that today is the first Sunday of Lent, I am drawn to reflecting what it means to “live Lent” and to know better what is supposed to happen to me during Lent with all this prayer, fasting and charity. To begin understanding Lent I’ve turned to Father Alexander Schmemann’s book, Great Lent (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press). Here are some excerpts:

When a man leaves on a journey, he must know where he is going. Thus with Lent. Above all, Lent is a spiritual journey and its destination is Easter, “the Feast of Feasts.” It is the preparation for the “fulfillment of Pascha, the true Revelation.” We must begin, therefore, by trying to understand this connection between Lent and Easter, for it reveals something very essential, very crucial about our Christian faith and life.

crucifix Bardi.jpg

Is it necessary to explain that Easter is much more than one of the feasts, more than a yearly commemoration of a past event? Anyone who has, be it only once, taken part in that night which is “brighter than the day,” who has tasted of that unique joy, knows it. […] On Easter we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection as something that happened and still happens to us. For each one of us received the gift of that new life and the power to accept it and live by it. It is a gift which radically alters our attitude toward everything in this world, including death. It makes it possible for us to joyfully affirm: “Death is no more!” Oh, death is still there, to be sure, and we still face it and someday it will come and take us. But it is our whole faith that by His own death Christ changed the very nature of death, made it a passage — a “passover,” a “Pascha” — into the Kingdom of God, transforming the tragedy of tragedies into the ultimate victory. […]

Such is that faith of the Church, affirmed and made evident by her countless Saints. Is it not our daily experience, however, that this faith is very seldom ours, that all the time we lose and betray the “new life” which we received as a gift, and that in fact we live as if Christ did not rise from the dead, as if that unique event had no meaning whatsoever for us? […] We simply forget all this — so busy are we, so immersed in our daily preoccupations — and because we forget, we fail. And through this forgetfulness, failure, and sin, our life becomes “old” again — petty, dark, and ultimately meaningless — a meaningless journey toward a meaningless end. […] We may from time to time acknowledge and confess our various “sins,” yet we cease to refer our life to that new life which Christ revealed and gave to usIndeed, we live as if He never came. This is the only real sin, the sin of all sins, the bottomless sadness and tragedy of our nominal Christianity.

If we realize this, then we may understand what Easter is and why it needs and presupposes Lent. For we may then understand that the liturgical traditions of the Church, all its cycles and services, exist, first of all, in order to help us recover the vision and the taste of that new life which we so easily lose and betray, so that we may repent and return to it. […] And yet the “old” life, that of sin and pettiness, is not easily overcome and changed. The Gospel expects and requires from man an effort of which, in his present state, he is virtually incapable. […] This is where Great Lent comes in. This is the help extended to us by the Church, the school of repentance which alone will make it possible to receive Easter not as mere permission to eat, to drink, and to relax, but indeed as the end of the “old” in us, as our entrance into the “new.” […] For each year Lent and Easter are, once again, the rediscovery and the recovery by us of what we were made through our own baptismal death and resurrection.

A journey, a pilgrimage! Yet, as we begin it, as we make the first step into the “bright sadness” of Lent, we see — far, far away — the destination. It is the joy of Easter, it is the entrance into the glory of the Kingdom. And it is this vision, the foretaste of Easter, that makes Lent’s sadness bright and our lenten effort a “spiritual spring.” The night may be dark and long, but all along the way a mysterious and radiant dawn seems to shine on the horizon. “Do not deprive us of our expectation, O Lover of man!”

Lent lengthens our horizon, it orients us to eternal life, Pope tells us

I present to you most of the Pope’s homily for Ash Wednesday. Emphasis added to draw attention to some excellent ideas or turns of phrase.

Ash Wednesday 2010.jpg

With this moving invocation, taken from the Book of
Wisdom (cf 11:23-26), the liturgy introduces the Eucharistic celebration of Ash
Wednesday. They are words that, in some way, open the whole Lenten journey,
placing as their foundation the omnipotence of the love of God, his absolute
lordship over every creature, which is translated in infinite indulgence,
animated by a constant and universal will to live. In fact, to forgive someone
is equivalent to saying: I do not want you to die, but that you live; I always
and only want your good

This absolute certainty sustained Jesus during the 40
days transpired in the desert of Judea, after the baptism received from John in
the Jordan. This long time of silence and fasting was for him a complete
to the Father and to his plan of love; it was a
“baptism,” that is, an “immersion” in his will, and in this
sense, an anticipation of the Passion and the Cross. To go into the desert and
to stay there a long time, alone, meant to be willingly exposed to the assaults
of the enemy, the tempter who made Adam fall and through whose envy death
entered the world (cf Wisdom 2:24); it meant engaging in open battle with him,
defying him with no other weapons than limitless confidence in the omnipotent
love of the Father. Your love suffices me, my food is to do your will (cf John
4:34): This conviction dwelt in the mind and heart of Jesus during that
“Lent” of his. It was not an act of pride, a titanic enterprise, but
a decision of humility, consistent with the Incarnation and the Baptism in the
Jordan, in the same line of obedience to the merciful love of the Father, who
“so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16).

The Lord
did all this for us. He did it to save us and, at the same time, to show us the
way to follow him. Salvation, in fact, is a gift, it is God’s grace, but to
have effect in my existence it requires my consent, an acceptance demonstrated
in deeds, that is, in the will to live like Jesus, to walk after him. To follow
Jesus in the Lenten desert is, hence, the condition necessary to participate in
his Easter, in his “exodus.
” Adam was expelled from the earthly
Paradise, symbol of communion with God; now, to return to that communion and,
therefore, to true life, it is necessary to traverse the desert, the test of
faith. Not alone, but with Jesus! He — as always — has preceded us and has
already conquered in the battle against the spirit of evil
. This is the meaning
of Lent
, liturgical time that every year invites us to renew the choice to follow
Christ on the path of humility to participate in his victory over sin and

Understood in this perspective also is the penitential sign of the
ashes, which are imposed on the head of those who begin with good will the
Lenten journey. It is essentially a gesture of humility, which means: I
recognize myself for what I am, a frail creature, made of earth and destined to
the earth, but also made in the image of God and destined to him
. Dust, yes,
but loved, molded by love
, animated by his vital breath, capable of recognizing
his voice and of responding to him; free and, because of this, also capable of
disobeying him, yielding to the temptation of pride and self-sufficiency. This
is sin, the mortal sickness that soon entered to contaminate the blessed earth
that is the human being
. Created in the image of the Holy and Righteous One,
man lost his own innocence and he can now return to be righteous only thanks to
the righteousness of God, the righteousness of love that — as St. Paul writes
—  was manifested “through faith in Jesus Christ” (Romans
3:22). From these words of the Apostle I took my inspiration for my Message,
addressed to all the faithful on the occasion of this Lent: a reflection on the
theme of righteousness in the light of the Sacred Scriptures and of its
fulfillment in Christ.

Also very present in the biblical readings of Ash
Wednesday is the theme of righteousness. First of all, the page of the prophet
Joel and the Responsorial Psalm — the Miserere — form a penitential diptych,
which manifests how at the origin of all material and social injustice is what
the Bible calls “iniquity,” that is, sin, which consists essentially
in a disobedience to God, namely, a lack of love. “For I know my
transgressions, / and my sin is ever before me. / Against thee, thee only, have
I sinned, / and done that which is evil in thy sight” (Psalm 51 (50):
3-4). The first act of righteousness, therefore, is to recognize one’s own
iniquity, it is to recognize that it is rooted in the “heart,” in the
very center of the human person
. “Fasting,” “weeping”,
“mourning” (cf. Joel 2:12) and every penitential expression has value
in the eyes of God only if it is the sign of truly repentant hearts. Also the
Gospel, taken from the “Sermon on the Mount,” insists on the need to
practice proper “righteousness” — almsgiving, prayer and fasting —
not before men but only in the eyes of God, who “sees in secret” (cf
Matthew 6:1-6.16-18). The true “recompense” is not others’
admiration, but friendship with God and the grace that derives from it, a grace
that gives strength to do good, to love also the one who does not deserve it,
to forgive those who have offended us.

Dear brothers
and sisters, Lent lengthens our horizon, it orients us to eternal life. On this
earth we are on pilgrimage, “[f]or here we have no lasting city, but we
seek the city which is to come,” says the Letter to the Hebrews (Hebrews
13:14). Lent makes us understand the relativity of the goods of this earth and
thus makes us capable of the necessary self-denials, free to do good
. Let us
open the earth to the light of heaven, to the presence of God in our midst.

Practice prayer … it’ll be the best thing you’ve ever done (as least lately)

Practice prayer from the beginning. Paint your house
with the colors of modesty and humility. Make it radiant with the light of
justice. Decorate it with the finest gold leaf of good deeds. Adorn it with the
walls and stones of faith and generosity. Crown it with the pinnacle of prayer.
In this way, you will make it a perfect dwelling place for the Lord. You will
be able to receive him as in a splendid palace, and through His grace you will
already possess Him, His image enthroned in the temple of your spirit.

Saint John
Chrysostom, homily read at Office of Readings, Friday after Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday 2010: Conversion goes against the current of mediocre morality

Ash Wed.jpgThe last sentence of Pope Benedict’s Wednesday audience today gives us a clue as to the reason why we begin a religious season of conversion, a yearly season of purification, he says: “40 days of intense prayer and sincere penance, to be able to celebrate, purified and completely renewed in mind and spirit, the great mystery of her Son’s Easter.” This is the point of ashes, penance, prayer, fasting, alms-giving–Easter!

NYC churches, as one example of a large urban center, seemingly have millions of people filtering through the churches on Ash Wednesday. Certainly, the Cathedral of Saint Patrick saw 40-50 thousand people today and Saint Agnes Church saw about 7 thousand people come for ashes. It’s tiresome to stand all day imposing ashes on gizilions of people repeating person-after-person the formula, “Remember that you are dust and dust you shall return.” BUT it was good work for the Lord and for our sisters and brothers. On a personal note, I prayed my rosary and made my morning offering today for all the people upon whom I placed some ash as a token of the journey of conversion they’ve begun today by moving to the Last Supper, calvary and then unto empty tomb unto their salvation.

The Pope’s homily today is another wonderful piece of practical theology moving us to the center of faith in Jesus Christ.

Today, Ash Wednesday, we begin the Lenten journey: a journey that extends over 40 days and that leads us to the joy of the Lord’s Easter. We are not alone in this spiritual itinerary, because the Church accompanies and sustains us from the start with the Word of God, which encloses a program of spiritual life and penitential commitment, and with the grace of the sacraments.

The words of the Apostle Paul offer us a precise instruction: “Working together, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For he says: ‘In an acceptable time I heard you, and on the day of salvation I helped you.’ Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:1-2). In fact, in the Christian vision of life every moment must be called favorable and every day must be called the day of salvation. But the liturgy of the Church refers these words in a very particular way to the time of Lent. And that the 40 days of preparation for Easter be a favorable time and grace we can understand precisely in the call that the austere rite of the imposition of ashes addresses to us and which is expressed, in the liturgy, with two formulae: “Repent and believe in the Gospel,” and “Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.”

The first call is to conversion, a word that must be taken in its extraordinary seriousness, discovering the amazing novelty it contains. The call to conversion, in fact, uncovers and denounces the easy superficiality that very often characterizes our way of living. To be converted means to change direction along the way of life — not for a slight adjustment, but a true and total change of direction. Conversion is to go against the current, where the “current” is a superficial lifestyle, inconsistent and illusory, which often draws us, controls us and makes us slaves of evil, or in any case prisoners of moral mediocrity. With conversion, instead, one aims to the lofty measure of Christian life; we are entrusted to the living and personal Gospel, which is Christ Jesus. His person is the final goal and the profound meaning of conversion; he is the way which we are called to follow in life, allowing ourselves to be illumined by his light and sustained by his strength that moves our steps. In this way conversion manifests its most splendid and fascinating face: It is not a simple moral decision to rectify our conduct of life, but it is a decision of faith, which involves us wholly in profound communion with the living and concrete person of Jesus.

Peter Preaching LVeneziano.jpg

To be converted and to believe in the Gospel are not two different things or in some way closely related, but rather, they express the same reality. Conversion is the total “yes” of the one who gives his own existence to the Gospel, responding freely to Christ, who first offered himself to man as Way, Truth and Life, as the one who frees and saves him. This is precisely the meaning of the first words with which, according to the Evangelist Mark, Jesus began the preaching of the “Gospel of God.” “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15).

“Repent and believe in the Gospel” is not only at the beginning of the Christian life, but accompanies all its steps, [this call] remains, renewing itself, and spreads, branching out in all its expressions. Every day is a favorable moment of grace, because each day invites us to give ourselves to Jesus, to have confidence in him, to remain in him, to share his style of life, to learn from him true love, to follow him in daily fulfilling of the will of the Father, the only great law of life — every day, even when difficulties and toil, exhaustion and falls are not lacking, even when we are tempted to abandon the following of Christ and to shut ourselves in ourselves, in our egoism, without realizing the need we have to open to the love of God in Christ, to live the same logic of justice and love.

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In the recent Message for Lent, I wished to remind that “humility is required to accept that I need Another to free me from ‘what is mine,’ to give me gratuitously ‘what is his.’ This happens especially in the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist. Thanks to Christ’s action, we may enter into the ‘greatest’ justice, which is that of love (cf. Rm 13, 8-10), the justice that recognizes itself in every case more a debtor than a creditor, because it has received more than could ever have been expected” (L’Osservatore Romano, Feb. 5, 2010, p. 8).

The favorable moment and grace of Lent shows us the very spiritual meaning also through the old formula: “Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return,” which the priest pronounces when he places ashes on our head. We are thus remitted to the beginning of human history, when the Lord said to Adam after the original fault: “By the sweat of your face shall you get bread to eat, Until you return to the ground, from which you were taken; For you are dirt, and to dirt you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).

Here, the Word of God reminds us of our frailty, including our death, which is the extreme expression of our frailty. In face of the innate fear of the end, and even more so in the context of a culture that in so many ways tends to censure the reality and the human experience of dying, the Lenten liturgy on one hand reminds us of death, inviting us to realism and to wisdom but, on the other hand, it drives us above all to accept and live the unexpected novelty that the Christian faith liberates us from the reality of death itself.

B16 receives ashes 2010.jpg

Man is dust and to dust he shall return, but he is precious dust in God’s eyes, because God created man for immortality. Thus the liturgical formula “Remember man that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return” finds the fullness of its meaning in reference to the new Adam, Christ. The Lord Jesus also wished to freely share with every man the lot of frailty, in particular through his death on the cross; but precisely this death, full of his love for the Father and for humanity, has been the way for the glorious resurrection, through which Christ has become the source of a grace given to those who believe in him and are made participants of divine life itself. This life which will have no end is already present in the earthly phase of our existence, but will be led to fulfillment after the “resurrection of the flesh.” The little gesture of the imposition of ashes reveals to us the singular richness of its meaning: It is an invitation to live the time of Lent as a more conscious and more intense immersion in the Paschal Mystery of Christ, in his death and resurrection, through participation in the Eucharist and in the life of charity, which stems from the Eucharist and in which it finds its fulfillment. With the imposition of ashes we renew our commitment to follow Jesus, to allow ourselves to be transformed by his Paschal Mystery, to overcome evil and do good, to have the “old man” in us die, the one linked to sin, and to have the “new man” be born, transformed by the grace of God.

Dear friends! While we hasten to undertake the austere Lenten journey, we want to invoke with particular confidence the protection and help of the Virgin Mary. May she, the first believer in Christ, be the one who accompanies us in these 40 days of intense prayer and sincere penance, to be able to celebrate, purified and completely renewed in mind and spirit, the great mystery of her Son’s Easter.

Good Lent to all!

What does conversion to Christ mean?

Conversion to Christ, believing in the Gospel,
ultimately means this: to exit the illusion of self-sufficiency in order to
discover and accept one’s own need – the need of others and God, the need of
His forgiveness and His friendship. So we understand how faith is altogether
different from a natural, good-feeling, obvious fact: humility is required to
accept that I need Another to free me from “what is mine,” to give me
gratuitously “what is His.” This happens especially in the sacraments of
Reconciliation and the Eucharist. Thanks to Christ’s action, we may enter into
the “greatest” justice, which is that of love (cf. Rm 13, 8-10), the justice
that recognises itself in every case more a debtor than a creditor, because it
has received more than could ever have been expected. Strengthened by this very
experience, the Christian is moved to contribute to creating just societies,
where all receive what is necessary to live according to the dignity proper to
the human person and where justice is enlivened by love.

Pope Benedict XVI
Lenten Message 2010

About the author

Paul A. Zalonski is from New Haven, CT. He is a member of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic ecclesial movement, and an Oblate of Saint Benedict. Contact Paul at paulzalonski[at]yahoo.com.
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