sklbaWe’ve finally entered the 2011 Season of Lent and the lateness of this year’s cycle brings us into overlap with the annual tax deadline.

For those of us slackers who wait longer than we should to do all the tedious calculations each year, the looming date of the Ides of April is always a bit ominous. The process begins, of course, with figuring out what we have earned during the past year by way of salary or related recompense. It’s the occasion for some helpful Lenten reflection as well.

We earn our salary.

We earn a living, and usually work very hard at it, presuming some sort of compensation for the regular tally of monthly expenses. We earn a certain number of sick days and personal days off from work. Times are tough and we are grateful for jobs when so many are not similarly blessed, and therefore forced to bear that hardship for their families.

Sometimes in the process we earn the respect of coworkers and the people whom we serve.

We earn experience and the wisdom which comes from it.

By use of the word “earn” in so many of these ordinary experiences, we indicate that we have done something for which fair recompense is expected in justice. We have a right to be paid, and at tax time we take a long look at the sum annual total of those wages. The government has a right to exact a portion of our salary for the needs of the poor and the conveniences and benefits of life in our society. Education of the young, utilities that function well and protection are well worth paying for, and those who provide such benefits in turn earn their salaries too.

Against all of that background, we enter Lent and make our own the question of the rich young man: “What must I do to share (Mk 10:17 and Lk 18:18) / possess (Mt 19:16) the life of the next age?” Some translations even suggest that the question might be phrased “to earn eternal life!” It is the latter which becomes the point of this column because it’s the wrong word!

If we have learned anything from our years of Lutheran/Catholic Dialogue, it is our common conviction that the grace and moment of justification before God is by the gratuitous gift of God, not by any works of our own … as the letter to the Ephesians makes perfectly clear (2:8f)! That was reaffirmed in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) signed solemnly by representatives of the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation on Oct. 31, 1999, finally resolving the bitter debates of the 16th century!

God gives freely, and nothing we can ever do on our own without grace can earn eternal life. If we choose to receive that gift gratefully, then our cooperation with grace can be blessed by the gift of eternal life in Christ. It remains a gift, however, forever and always!

Similarly, only God can take away the sins of the world. We say that humbly within every Mass we attend. That’s an important Lenten lesson. Not our penances, whatever they may be, nor our prayers and our good intentions, can take away our sins … only God can. The Lenten practices of prayer, almsgiving and personal self denial done by God’s grace can limit our inclination to engage in sinful actions, but only God takes away the sins of the world.

Lent is a time to focus on God, not ourselves. No matter what we do, we can’t earn anything before God in justice. Everything is gift, even the tough things in life which only later are revealed as moments of grace and growth.

Lent is also a time to focus on the entire community … and our need to be a different community by Easter!

Maybe the best penances this Lent are not the ones we choose for ourselves, but the ones God places on our plates! We receive God’s gifts; we can never “earn” them!