Years ago, I worked as a missionary priest in our archdiocesan mission parish, La Sagrada Familia, in the Dominican Republic. At that time, our parish had a main village, Sabana Yegua, and about 25 outstations in the surrounding villages. As priests, we spent a lot of time on the road in our pickup trucks visiting the villages, celebrating Sunday Mass, baptizing, attending the parish-related meetings and taking part in evangelization efforts. It was important to maintain our vehicles well, because we depended on them in order to do our work.

One thing that was unavoidable was dealing with flat tires. In the terrain in which our parish was located, there were thorn bushes with thorns that were sharp enough and long enough to puncture our tires. Many times, I had to pull to the side of the road, change the tire, and take the flat to get it fixed at a little booth along the highway with a hand written sign, “Gomero.” In much of the Spanish-speaking world, car tires are called “neumáticos” or “llantas.” However, in the Dominican Republic, tires are called “gomas,” and a “gomero” is one who fixes the tires. I was always amazed how these little thorns had the power to take down our machines. All it took was to run over a little thorn, and it would deflate the tire, which would force us to change our plans, and restructure our already busy day to make repairs. Hold on to that image for a minute.

During these first weeks of Lent, the weekday Mass readings, taken from the Old Testament and the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, are passages that help us to focus on the theme of conversion. They speak of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, forgiveness, love of enemies and the call to holiness. Here are some examples: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.” (Matthew 6:14-15) “The Lord your God commands you to observe these statutes and decrees. Be careful, then, to observe them with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Deuteronomy 26:16) “You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:43-44a) “Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.” (Luke 6:37) “Whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.” (Matthew 20:26b) “Return, O Israel, to the Lord, your God.” (Hosea 14:2) “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and all your mind. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37 and 39b)

The first part of the Lenten season focuses on the ethical dimension of the Gospel. The demands of discipleship challenge us, and soon we begin to understand that we fall short in our efforts to follow Christ. The purpose of this part of Lent is to help us realize our failure to live up to the Gospel values. This realization should bring us to a sense of compunction. Go back to the image of the thorns piercing the truck tire and deflating it. Compunction is a word related to the word “to puncture.” Mark Searle, in his article, “The Spirit of Lent,” speaks of how the challenges of the Gospel puncture and deflate our ego, helping us to realize that we cannot become disciples of Christ simply by means of our own power. The Scripture passages in the first part of Lent are meant to trouble us, and to help us feel our need for salvation.

The daily Mass readings in the second part of Lent shift from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke to the Gospel of John, with stories of Jesus saving those who truly understand their need for salvation. Some examples are as follows: Jesus giving sight to the man born blind (John 9:1-41); Jesus healing the lame man at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-16); Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-45); and Jesus forgiving the sins of the woman caught in adultery. (John 8:1-11)

The Lenten season is a chance to reflect upon our human weakness, our vulnerability in the face of temptation and sin, and our inability to save ourselves. However, more importantly, it is a time to deepen our realization of how much we need Christ, who extends to us his healing, forgiveness, mercy and saving power. (See Mark Searle, “The Spirit of Lent” in Assembly, Volume 8:3, 1981).