What are you giving up for Lent? During the Lenten season, most of us probably will engage in Lenten practices, such as fasting, almsgiving and prayer, which are all very helpful as we seek to continue our process of conversion. However, whether we give up foods we like, donate to charity or spend extra time in prayer, it is essential that we not put so much importance on what we are doing for God, but rather on what God is doing for us – how God calls us, touches us and transforms us. Lent is all about God and his generous love.
Next week, as we begin the Lenten Season, we will be receiving ashes as a sign of repentance. Lent is a time of preparation to enter more fully into the Paschal mystery. The Paschal mystery – the redemption brought about by the passion, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus – is at the heart of the liturgical reform outlined by the Second Vatican Council. The Council’s “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” focuses on Lent as a special time to prepare the faithful for the celebration of that great mystery.
Lent helps us to focus more intensely on personal conversion, taking off the old self and putting on Christ. The two essential elements of Lent consist of preparing for or reflecting on baptism, and doing penance. Baptism and penance are to be lived together. Penance reminds us of the reality of evil, and our need for God’s grace. We receive that grace at baptism, and our faith calls us to constant renewal of our baptism throughout our lives.
When St. Paul reflects on baptism, he speaks of repentance and rebirth brought about by baptism in the Paschal mystery: “… are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in the newness of life.” (Romans 6:3-4)
In baptism, we enter the waters sanctified by Christ’s death in order to die with him. In his resurrection, Christ revealed the new life promised to believers. We emerge from the waters purified, as St. Paul says, with a “new self, created in God’s way in true righteousness and holiness of truth.” (Ephesians 4:24)
We can look at Lent as a new beginning and the way that leads to Easter, Christ’s victory over sin and death. It is the path of conversion. In the Book of the Prophet Joel, we read the words: “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart.” (Joel 2:12a)
In the Sacred Scriptures, repentance refers to change – a change of mind or heart, a change of disposition or attitude. It implies sorrow for sin, regret and conversion. A true conversion will show itself in helping the poor and the needy and in the ending of quarrels, as we read in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah: “This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke.” (Isaiah 58:6)
Repentance is more than signs. It is about conversion, turning to God and his merciful love. It is also a turning from evil ways, sin and idolatry. Conversion is not simply participation in rituals of repentance but involves a personal change. Conversion demands placing one’s confidence in God and accepting God’s will. It is a completely new disposition characterized by a new heart and a new spirit. (See Ezekiel 11:19)
Repentance and conversion are prominent themes in the Gospels. John the Baptist calls the people to repentance, and his baptism is a baptism of repentance. (See Mark 1:4-6) John demands repentance “because the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:2) The signs of repentance are baptism, a confession of sins and good works, such as the giving of alms and faithfully carrying out one’s duties.
When Jesus appears on the scene after his time in the desert, his message is this: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15) In the Gospels, Jesus makes it clear that he came to call sinners.
A confession of sinfulness marks Simon Peter’s conversion. Jesus directs Simon, who had been fishing all night catching nothing, to cast his net in the deep water. Suddenly, the nets catch so many fish that they are at the point of tearing, and Simon falls at the feet of Jesus and says, “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” (Luke 5:8b)
Conversion is an important theme in the parables of Jesus. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple demonstrates how the tax collector’s confession of sins brings him to righteousness: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” (Luke 18:13b)
What Jesus seeks is genuine conversion, a total turning toward God. Jesus describes this in terms of becoming like a child. (See Matthew 18:3) This involves repudiating the past, and beginning a new life. Along with this comes an acknowledgment of the reality of sin, and the change of belief and attitude needed to escape from sinfulness. By repentance, a person turns from sin and turns toward God the Father through Jesus Christ.
We begin this Lenten season reflecting on our Baptism so that on Easter we may renew our baptismal commitment. Baptism is all about what God does for us. In baptism, we become adopted sons and daughters of God. Whenever we renew our baptismal commitment, we allow God to transform us into what he always intended us to be – instruments of his love and mercy in this world. May this Lenten season lead us to true repentance and conversion, rejecting evil and proclaiming our faith by the way we live our lives.