Mike and I recently discussed the Season of Lent with our RCIA participants. We talked about the purposes of the season: To celebrate the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, to renew our baptismal commitments by turning ourselves away from the distractions of this life and to turn ourselves back toward God. We pointed out that our efforts in this area take many forms. Often, we give up things such as favorite foods, smoking or the movies. Such acts of self-denial are meant to put our physical concerns on the back burner so we can focus more upon our spirits. Sometimes, we add activities to our day to express our affection to God such as attending daily Mass or Stations of the Cross, spending more time with our children, avoiding unnecessary arguments or putting a bit of change into our Rice Bowl each day. Again, these activities are meant to focus us more clearly on our spirituality.
Whatever we choose to give up or to do, we sometimes find that we spend a good deal of time “policing” ourselves with the hope of keeping our Lenten commitments for the full forty days. The good news is that through this process we might just kick a bad habit, form a good habit, lose a few pounds, gather a few dollars for the poor, improve our family relationships and much more. The better news is that we can transform these successes into amazing encounters with God.
I admitted to our RCIA class that of all the seasons and holy days that fill the church year, Lent and Holy Week are my very favorites. The smudged cross of ashes that I receive on my forehead each Ash Wednesday signals my return to the realities of my relationship with Jesus and, more importantly, of Jesus’ love for me.
Two thousand years ago, Jesus did everything to convince the people of God’s love. Unfortunately, the possibilities of a heaven that was open to everyone and a God who overlooked the rules in favor of mercy were too much for some. So it happened that Jesus’ betrayal was set in motion and his death became imminent. History tells us that Jesus was arrested and questioned, ridiculed and beaten. The hatred and fear of his captors led to the scourging that would have killed another man and the crowning that only this God would choose to endure. Jesus went on to die in disgrace with only his mother and two friends in his company. To me, the most frightening aspect of all of this is the reality that Jesus endured his passion and death in spite of my sinfulness and because of it. As terrible as this is to acknowledge, I embrace the opportunity to remember what Jesus did for me. To me, Lent is my opportunity to make things right by walking with Jesus all the way past Calvary and on to Easter Sunday.
I realize that my Lenten sacrifices pale in the face of all that those around me accomplish. Still, I persist in spite of myself because I’ve added a “God Dimension” which gives the only true value to my effort. When I feel hunger, I thank God for the reminder that God is always with me. When I remember those who have asked for my prayers, I thank Jesus for using just the right words to touch my heart. When I’m discouraged by events near and far, I turn to God to ensure me that all will be well in God’s time. When I look at my neighbor and find it difficult to love, I ask Jesus to look with me that I may see whom He sees. When I attend Mass, I thank Jesus for the gift of himself. When I pray the Stations, I tell Jesus I don’t know why he bothered and that I will always be grateful that he did. When my heart feels empty, I seek inspiration from a favorite book or song, a psalm or holy card, a prayer or a walk in God’s outdoors. I know God will reveal the Divine to me as God always does. You see, Jesus has absolutely convinced me of God’s love, and I use Lent to return the favor as best I can.
In today’s gospel (John 2:13-25), Jesus is beside himself with anger because on this holy feast of Passover the temple looks more like a marketplace than God’s place. Jesus has given everything, and soon he will give his very life, to convince the people of God’s love for them. Jesus exhibited God’s mercy and acceptance, God’s forgiveness and compassion in all he said and did. Nonetheless, the people persist in their selfishness, their hatred and their refusal to open their hearts to God’s word. Though you and I can do nothing about what happened in the temple that Passover so long ago, we can do something this Lent. We can transform every bit of self-denial achieved, every good work accomplished and every failure in our resolve into an opportunity to return God’s love with our own.
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