Father Michael F.X. Hinkley
With Lent’s themes of selfdenial, penance and reconciliation, it might seem odd to an observer from another faith that many Catholics describe Lent as their favorite season of the Church year.
There are several reasons we can find for this unique place of Lent in the liturgical calendar. On the one hand, Lent is free of the social and commercial challenges faced by the spiritual themes of Advent, the second-favorite season. Even in the modern information age, Lent’s message seems to get through the secular media with little distortion. Beginning with Ash Wednesday, one can even find on the televised evening news the clear message of the season: “Turn away from sin, and be faithful to the Gospel.”
On the other hand, there is a deeper and very personal moral reason for people’s attraction to this penitential season that leads us to the bright and glorious light of Easter. Every person naturally wants to understand himself or herself to be a “good” person. As the season focuses on a new life in Christ and the forgiveness of sins, we are asked as individuals and as a community to faithfully live the principles of the Gospel. In fact, the natural moral law, affirmed by the Second Vatican Council, teaches that every person has within himself or herself a desire to do what is good and to avoid evil. This primal desire serves as the foundation of the moral life.
Care should be taken when reflecting on what we define as “good.” It’s easy for us to reflect and quickly conclude: “Yeah, I’m basically a nice person, a good person. I’m not a bad person.” Such a thought isn’t necessarily a Christian understanding; it fails to speak of living, by a free choice, the Christian life grounded in Jesus Christ. To be good in Christianity is to turn from sin and live by the example of Jesus’ Gospel, which, in turn, offers grace and the gift of the Resurrection. Moreover, you will find no Scriptural reference supporting the notion that you should merely be “nice.”
According to the Second Vatican Council, goodness is one with faithful Christian discipleship. This is most clearly seen in the example of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ: “In reality it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear” (Gaudium et Spes, 22). As the individual person strives to live by the example of Jesus, he or she finds greater fulfillment as a human being, as the council teaches: “Whoever follows Christ the perfect man becomes himself more a man” (Lumen Gentium, 41). To the same end, St. Irenaeus teaches: “the glory of God is a man fully alive” in the Gospel. Thus, a person fully alive in Christ lives with his or her heart and mind centered on the kingdom of heaven.
Put simply, Lent is attractive to the human heart because part of our being a human person is the desire to do good and, in turn, bring glory to God and dwell with him eternally. Thus, if Lent is a season that calls the disciple to journey faithfully with Christ and turn away from sin, the entire theme of the season speaks to the very center of what it means to be a human person – one who seeks the good revealed in Christ Jesus in order to bring glory to God and receive eternal life through the Easter mystery!
This fundamental desire for knowing ourselves as good and faithful disciples is also clearly revealed in our celebration of the Eucharist, especially during Lent. Several of the themes repeated in the prayers during Mass echo this human desire to live and be understood as a morally good person seeking to be free of sin and renewed in heart.
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday’s opening and alternative prayer: “Lord, protect us in our struggle against evil ... the light of your truth bestows sight to the darkness of sinful eyes.” As the days of Lent pass, the opening prayers of the fourth and fifth weeks of Lent introduce the theme of the joy born of our common desire for reconciliation: “May our Lenten observance prepare us to embrace the paschal mystery and to proclaim your salvation with joyful praise.”
Finally, at the solemn beginning of the Easter Vigil’s Service of Light, the Church prays: “Dear friends in Christ, on this most holy night, when our Lord Jesus Christ passed from death to life, the Church invites her children throughout the world to come together in vigil and prayer. This is the Passover of the Lord: if we honor the memory of his death and resurrection by hearing his word and celebrating his mysteries, then we may be confident that we share his victory over death and live with him forever in God.”
The joyful faith of Lent passes through the darkness of self-reflection, personal conversion and Calvary, and finally arrives with the human person’s celebrating the Lord’s victory and gift of eternal life. Thus, it is not in thinking of ourselves as nice or good people that we find fulfillment. On the contrary, it is the experience of receiving forgiveness and realizing the love offered through the sacrament of reconciliation that we come to know a unique and spirit-filled joy in the days of Lent and beyond. The mysterious joy born of our Lenten contrition affirms our human dignity and blooms in the Lord’s resurrection that is recalled in the lilies of Easter morning.