At the beginning of Lent, Ash Wednesday, the celebrant of the distribution of ashes is given a choice between two formulas, which he pronounces when making the sign of the cross on the foreheads of the recipients. Either, “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return” or “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” One-phrase “remember you are dust,” seems to emphasize the stark reality that we will all die. Life passes before us and it is only a short time that we have on earth. The psalms remind us of our mortality. What are we doing with the time afforded to us? Where do we seek our hope? The other seems to emphasize the need for conversion. It means to turn our lives around to change our way of living and accept the Gospel as the way to life.
Having been a priest and bishop for over 40 years, I can tell you that I have used both formulas. At times, we needed to be reminded of our mortality – we cannot live as if there will always be tomorrow. “As for man his days are like the grass he blossoms like a flower in the field. A wind sweeps over it and it is gone, its place knows it no more.” (Psalm 103: 15-16) And, at other times I have experienced the need to turn my life around and accept the gospel and the consequences it represents: (Romans 15:13), “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
The Church in her wisdom offers to us what we need to hear so that we can journey through Lent, always leading us to a closer relationship with the Lord.
In 1974, I was a new deacon sent to minister in a parish, St. Michael in Orland Park. Being 25 years of age, I was the “kiddie” priest and assigned to work with the Catholic grammar school and the religious education program. We had just received video tape equipment, pretty classy for 1974, and I wanted to record the impressions of our students during the season of Lent. Interviewing the first graders, I asked them if they wanted to send a message about Lent to those watching. Spontaneously, they all waved and said HAPPY LENT!!! I was curious as to why they said “happy” Lent. One boy innocently said, it’s time spent with Jesus, and that is always a happy time. I have heard from friends and parishioners that Lent is their favorite season. I think that part of their sentiment is found in the little first grader’s comment – It is always a happy time to be with Jesus.
In the Gospel of Matthew 6: 1-8, 16:18, Jesus gives us the formula for developing our relationship with God during the Lenten season and that is prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
No one can develop a relationship without communication and certainly, if we wish a relationship with God, we have to communicate. Therefore, we should be praying every day but during Lent, it is important to intensify that prayer life. The Archdiocese has set forth a challenge called the One Percent Challenge (https://jpiihealingcenter.org/). If that’s not possible, then increase your prayer life by five minutes. However, the key is “discipline” – doing it at the same time every day. There is also a free Bible App. (Download Jesus.com) the Scriptures are at your fingertips. When you pray, it doesn’t matter whether you use formal or informal prayers. Just make sure you’re faithful in fulfilling your daily prayer. It will make a difference in your life.
Fasting demonstrates that we are willing to sacrifice in the name of the Lord. Fasting makes us stronger. The more we can do without the less dependent we are. Fasting is a statement that we can do without many things but we can never do without God. There are only two days of fasting, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, but nothing stops us from adding others. We fast purposefully in the name of Jesus. Most of us are familiar with mortification. We voluntarily sacrifice a favorite food or drink during the Lenten season. People will often ask us what we gave up for Lent. Changing our normal behavior reminds us that this is a special time devoted to walking with Jesus towards the cross of salvation.
Almsgiving is important in understanding the declaration “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” The Gospel confronts us with the needs of our brothers and sisters. We become very complacent in our day-to-day living. Our lives are comfortable. But, we forget that many are denied even the basics of life. Recently a visit to the Dominican Republic made me aware of the need for “latrines.” We would not normally think of toilet facilities. Yet the homes in the DR are built without plumbing or electricity and even a latrine is too costly ($300) to build. Yet this simple fixture brings a sense of dignity to the life of a family. I decided that we would attempt to build 10 latrines as part of our almsgiving. This would also help us realize the many simple things we take for granted.
There are also other needs right here in our community. We can clean our closets and contribute to the clothing needs at the House of Peace. We can seek to assist providing meals at various locations in the city. We can provide funds for Catholic Relief Services (CRS) which reaches out to those in need across the globe. We need to do something to demonstrate our solidarity with those in need during Lent.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation must also be a major part of our Lenten journey. We need to examine our lives and confess our sinfulness. Christ came to save us from sin and offer us new life. We acknowledge our sins knowing that His love and mercy are given to us. We can celebrate Jesus as Redeemer and shout with joy as we walk with Him to Holy Week. HAPPY LENT.