March 20, 2020

The Face of Mercy / Daniel Conway

Lent prepares us for the great mystery of Easter

The annual message for Lent is an opportunity for the pope to call our attention to aspects of Christian spirituality that may be overlooked in the other liturgical seasons.

Lent’s threefold emphasis—prayer, fasting and almsgiving—is certainly not inappropriate during the other seasons, but it is brought into sharp focus during this time that Pope Francis calls a “favorable time to prepare to celebrate with renewed hearts the great mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the cornerstone of our personal and communal Christian life.”

In his 2020 message, Pope Francis calls our attention to four aspects of the spiritual discipline of Lent: 1) the paschal mystery as the basis of conversion; 2) the urgency of conversion; 3) God’s passionate will to dialogue with us, his children; and 4) the willingness to recognize that all God’s gifts present us with a richness to be shared, not kept for oneself. Certainly these are important concepts to reflect on all year long, but during Lent we are challenged to consider them in new ways.

When the pope says that the paschal mystery is the basis for our conversion, he reminds us that “Christian joy flows from listening to, and accepting, the Good News of the death and resurrection of Jesus.”

Lent is not a time of gloom and doom, but a period of sober anticipation for an experience of great joy. This truly is Good News, but as the Holy Father warns us, “If we listen instead to the tempting voice of the ‘father of lies’ [Jn 8:44], we risk sinking into the abyss of absurdity, and experiencing hell here on Earth, as all too many tragic events in the personal and collective human experience sadly bear witness.”

The pope challenges us to see that genuine conversion has an immediacy and an urgency. God calls each of us now. He invites us to communicate with him and to change the ways we think, act and live. “That is why prayer is so important in Lent,” Pope Francis says. “Even more than a duty, prayer is an expression of our need to respond to God’s love which always precedes and sustains us. Christians pray in the knowledge that, although unworthy, we are still loved. Prayer can take any number of different forms, but what truly matters in God’s eyes is that it penetrates deep within us and chips away at our hardness of heart, in order to convert us ever more fully to God and to his will.”

Now is the time to let go of selfishness and sin. By opening ourselves to God in prayer, penance and self-giving, we can “chip away at our hardness of heart” and discover how much God loves us.

Prayer opens our minds and hearts to receive God’s abundant graces and enter into dialogue with him. As Pope Francis tells us, “The dialogue that God wishes to establish with each of us through the paschal mystery of his Son has nothing to do with empty chatter.” The recitation of formal prayers is valuable, but only to the extent that it disposes us to hear God’s word, to reflect on it in our hearts, and, as St. James tells us, to “be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deluding ourselves” (Jas 1:22).

God’s desire to enter into dialogue with us is insatiable. As Pope Francis says, “Despite the sometimes tragic presence of evil in our lives, and in the life of the Church and the world, this opportunity to change our course expresses God’s unwavering will not to interrupt his dialogue of salvation with us.” Lent offers us a unique opportunity to let God speak to us “where we live” as sinners who want, and need, the redemptive love of Christ crucified.

Finally, Pope Francis tells us that God’s love and mercy, like all his gifts, are meant to be shared. “Today too, there is a need to appeal to men and women of good will to share, by almsgiving, their goods with those most in need, as a means of personally participating in the building of a better world. Charitable giving makes us more human, whereas hoarding risks making us less human, imprisoned by our own selfishness.”

The three traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving are inseparable. If we keep our eyes on the goal—“the great mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the cornerstone of our personal and communal Christian life,” Lent will be a positive, life-giving preparation for Easter joy.

(Daniel Conway is a member of The Criterion’s editorial committee.)

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