It never fails. Almost every Lent, I get the same question: why do Catholics make sacrifices during Lent? Two of my coworkers, whom I love dearly, posed that question today. They sincerely wanted to know why we observe Lent. "Is it in the Bible", came one query.
Actually, there is biblical support for the Church's various liturgical practices. Perhaps the best person to explain this is no less than the Vicar of Christ, himself, Pope Benedict XVI. Reading through the magnificent homily that he preached yesterday, I found pretty much all of the answers to the questions that my friends posed.
In this section of the homily, the Holy Father masterfully weaves the biblical references, which form the Liturgy of the Word for Ash Wednesday:
"Return to me with all your heart" (Joel 2:12). In the first reading taken from the Book of the prophet Joel, we have heard these words with which God invited the Jewish people to sincere, not apparent, repentance. It is not about a superficial and transitory conversion but, rather, a spiritual itinerary which has much to do with the attitudes of the conscience and which implies a sincere resolution to repent. The prophet begins with the plague of the invasion of locusts, which fell on the people destroying their crops, to invite them to interior penance, to rend their hearts and not their garments (cf. 2:13).
Hence, it is about putting into practice an attitude of genuine conversion to God -- of return to him -- recognizing his holiness, his power, his majesty. And this conversion is possible because God is rich in mercy and great in love. His is a regenerating mercy, which creates a pure heart in us, renews our interior in a firm spirit, restoring to us the joy of salvation (cf.Psalm 50:14). God, in fact, does not will the death of the sinner, but that he be converted and live (cf. Ezekiel 33:11). So the prophet Joel orders, in the name of the Lord, that an appropriate penitential environment be created: It is necessary to blow the trumpet, convoke the meeting, awaken consciences.
Conversion is an on-going process. It is not a one-and-done deal. The same challenge that the prophet Joel issued to Ancient Israel rings true in the New Israel, which is the Church. We need to take a good, hard and long look at ourselves. Some of us shudder to look at the numbers on the bathroom scale as we weigh ourselves. It usually is not a pretty sight. But, it is a reality check that we need in order to get on some sort of a regimen to be healthy.
Lent is that weigh-in for our souls. However, unlike the fat that we need to purge, what we need to burn off is sin. Sin, unchecked, can kill the love of God in our hearts and can do more damage to our souls than the clogged arteries that find their roots in fat. The fasting that the prophet Joel speaks of is not so much about monitoring our body weight; it is about letting go of whatever can hinder us from God. Such conversion helps us to respond to God's love as we should. As Pope Benedict XVI tells us:
The Lenten period proposes to us this liturgical and penitential ambit: a journey of forty days where we can experience in an effective way the merciful love of God. Today the call resounds for us: "Return to me with all your heart"; today we are the ones called to convert our hearts to God, conscious that we cannot carry out our conversion by ourselves, with our own efforts, because it is God who converts us. He offers us once again his forgiveness, inviting us to return to Him to give us a new heart, purified from the evil that oppresses it, to have us take part in his joy. Our world needs to be converted to God; it needs his forgiveness, his love; it needs a new heart.
St. Paul makes the same case for conversion in his letter to the Corinthians. According to Pope Benedict XVI:
"Be reconciled to God" (2 Corinthians 5:20). In the second reading, Saint Paul offers us another element on the path to conversion. The Apostle invites to look away from him and to direct our attention instead to the One who has sent him and to the content of the message he brings: "[s]o we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you, on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God" (Ibid.). An ambassador repeats what he has heard his Lord say and he speaks with the authority and within the limits he has received. He who carries out the office of ambassador must not attract attention to himself, but must place himself at the service of the message he must transmit and of the one who sent him. Saint Paul acts thus when carrying out his ministry of preaching the Word of God and of Apostle of Jesus Christ. He does not shrink in face of the task received, but carries it out with total dedication, inviting us to open ourselves to grace, to allow God to convert us. "Working together with him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain" (2 Corinthians 6:1).It reminds me of what St. Augustine once said: The God who made you without your cooperation cannot save you without it. God continuously invites us to conversion; however, He does not force Himself on us. He gave us a free will. It is our choice. Lent helps us to make the choice to love God a lot clearer.
"Now then, Christ's call to conversion," the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, "continues to resound in the lives of Christians. [...] is an uninterrupted task for the whole Church who 'clasping sinners to her bosom, [is]at once holy and always in need of purification, [and] follows constantly the path of penance and renewal' (LG 8). This endeavor of conversion is not just a human work. It is the movement of a 'contrite heart' (Psalm 51:19), drawn and moved by grace (cf. John 6:44; 12:32) to respond to the merciful love of God who loved us first (cf. 1 John 4:10)" (No. 1428).
Like the prophet Joel's appeal, St. Paul's words to the Church in Corinth certainly ring true today. They compel us with the same sense of urgency that these words expressed to the Corinthians:
St. Paul speaks to the Christians of Corinth, but through them he intends to address all men. All in fact are in need of the grace of God, to illumine their minds and hearts. And the Apostle adds: "now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation" (2 Corinthians6:2). We can all open ourselves to God's action, to his love; with our evangelical witness, we Christians must be a living message, in fact, in many cases we are the only Gospel that the men of today still read. This is our responsibility, following the steps of Saint Paul, here is another reason to live Lent well: to give witness of a lived faith to a world in difficulty that needs to return to God, which is in need of conversion.
And what of the challenge that Christ gives us in the Gospel account for Ash Wednesday? What are we to make of it. Again, Pope Benedict offers a solid perspective:
"Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them" (Matthew 6:1). In today's Gospel, Jesus repeats the three essential works of piety established in the Mosaic Law. Almsgiving, prayer and fasting characterized the Jews who observed the law. With the passing of time, these prescriptions were stained by the rust of exterior formalism, or they have even been transformed into a sign of superiority.
In these three works of piety Jesus makes evident a common temptation. When something good is done, almost instinctively the desire arises to be esteemed and admired for the good action, to have some satisfaction. And this, on one hand, shuts us in on ourselves, and on the other it takes us out of ourselves, because we live projected to what others think of us and admire in us. In proposing these prescriptions again, the Lord Jesus does not ask for formal respect to a law foreign to man, imposed by a severe lawmaker as a heavy burden, but he invites us to rediscover these three works of piety by living them more profoundly, not for love of self but for love of God, as means on the path of conversion to Him.
Almsgiving, prayer and fasting is the course of the divine pedagogy that supports us, not only in Lent, toward the encounter with the Risen Lord; a path to follow without ostentation, in the certainty that the heavenly Father is able to read and also to see in the secrecy of our hearts.
My two co-workers, as much as I love them, seem to have a confusion about what the "law" is. Jesus, in the account from St. Matthew, does not condemn the practices of fasting, prayer and almsgiving. Rather, he encouraged them, only in a manner that was sincere and just, in a form that did not call attention to our wonderful selves, but, in a quiet manner that focuses more on love of God and neighbor.
To the words of Jesus, the Holy Father adds:
Dear brothers and sisters, let us begin this Lenten itinerary confident and joyful. Forty days separate us from Easter; this "intense" time of the liturgical year is a propitious time to attend, with greater commitment, to our conversion, to intensify listening to the Word of God, prayer and penance, opening our hearts to the docile acceptance of the divine will, for a more generous practice of mortification, thanks to which we will go more readily to help our needy neighbor: a spiritual itinerary which prepares us to receive the Paschal Mystery.
My parochial vicar said the same thing in yesterday's homily. Lent prepares us for two occasions, the distant and the proximate. Lent helps us to get ready for the final judgment. The disciplines that we practice here on earth, help us to refocus and redirect our hearts towards God. Where our treasure lies, there is where our hearts are. In the proximate sense, Lent prepares us to fully enter into the Paschal Mystery that is Holy Week. It is the time of privileged grace for all Christians. It is the appropriate time for conversion.