February 5, 2016

Rejoice in the Lord

Preparing for a holy Lent in the Year of Mercy

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin

Ash Wednesday is only a few days away. With this extremely popular observance, we begin the six and a half weeks that make up the liturgical season of Lent.

Why do you suppose that Ash Wednesday, when we bless the ashes of palms and then mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross, is so popular? In a culture that celebrates perpetual youth and tries to deny the reality of death, isn’t it odd that we dramatically symbolize that we are dust and to dust we shall return?

I think Ash Wednesday is popular because it’s a day when we freely let go of all false pretenses and vain ambitions. Fasting and abstinence represent the traditional posture of monks, nuns, hermits and other holy people who repent of their sins and disdain what the world has to offer.

Most of us are not monks or nuns, but we are people who—in our heart of hearts—long for a degree of purity and freedom that cannot be found by attachment to what this world has to offer. We know that we will not live forever, and that we will one day return to dust, and we appreciate the fact that Ash Wednesday speaks the truth about the frailty and impermanence of our human condition.

The Second Vatican Council taught that Lent has a twofold character: 1) it recalls our baptism and the universal call to holiness; and 2) it stresses the fact that in order to experience the joy of eternal life with God (symbolized by the joy of Easter), we must suffer and, eventually, we must die.

The penitential season of Lent is designed to prepare us for great joy. It is not a gloomy or depressing season, but it is a time of sober reflection intended to help us get ready for what Pope Francis calls “an experience of closeness to the Lord who in the mystery of his passion, death and resurrection indicates the royal road which gives meaning to pain and loneliness.”

This Lent, we are especially blessed because we have the opportunity to experience the Lord’s closeness through observance of the Holy Year of Mercy. Lent is the season of mercy. It’s a time when the Church reminds us that no sin—no matter how grievous—can permanently separate us from the love of God if we truly repent and seek the forgiveness of the One who is ever-merciful.

Pope Francis urges us to seek and find “a genuine experience of God’s mercy, which comes to meet each person in the Face of the Father who welcomes and forgives, forgetting completely the sin committed.” We are not asked to pretend that our sins are “no big deal,” just as we do not deny that we will one day die and return to dust.

Sin is horrible, an offense against heaven and Earth, and justice demands that we atone for our sins and accept the punishment we deserve. And yet, God is free to intervene in our lives and to wipe away the consequences of our selfishness and sin simply because he loves us and desires that we be happy with him forever.

Yes, our God is just, but our faith tells us that God’s mercy transforms our notions of justice—allowing us, as Pope Francis teaches, “to be touched in a tangible way by the mercy of the Father, who wants to be close to those who have the greatest need of his forgiveness.”

What a powerful Lenten image! The more we seek God’s forgiveness, the more we experience his closeness. And no matter how seriously we have sinned, nothing can prevent us from being touched in a tangible way by the amazing grace that alone frees us from the negative effects of our sin!

What can we do to prepare for this genuine experience of God’s mercy? Allow our loving Father to come close to us. Speak with him in prayer. Open our hearts to him in the sacraments of reconciliation and Eucharist. Observe the Lenten practices of fast and abstinence. Perform the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

I plan to write about many of these Lenten themes during the next six weeks as we prepare for the joy of Easter. Lent is truly a time of grace and, as Pope Francis says, an opportunity to make the mercy of God “become visible in the witness of concrete signs as Jesus himself taught us.”

Let’s prepare for a holy Lent in this very special Year of Mercy. Let’s ask God to open our hearts this Lent and, so, allow him to come close to us! †

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