Lent is about confronting reality

This liturgical season dedicated to penitence and preparation for Easter has been endeavored by Christians spanning the centuries, perhaps all the way back to apostolic times.1 But as spiritually-invigorating Lent may be, at the root of the season is a call to rediscover reality. Lent reminds us of what’s really important, considering our limited time here on Earth. It invites us to re-examine our lives, recognize our imperfection, and cling to God. Additionally, Lent makes front and center the Resurrection of Christ, the mystery we prepare to celebrate more explicitly during Easter.

In the Western church, the first day of Lent is Ash Wednesday, in which ashes are marked on individuals’ foreheads as a sign of humble repentance. Traditionally, the minister spreads the ashes while declaring the following: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” At its core, that’s what Lent is all about.  We remember we are finite—that yes, one day, we will die. And with our mortality in view, we zero in on our true purpose. We take out our earphones, log off of Facebook, and ask “What is the meaning of life?” Cliché though it may be, how often do we really ask ourselves this, really?

In Catholic practice, the priest may alternatively say “Repent and believe in the gospel” while administering the ashes. This confronts us with another aspect of the human condition, our need for constant conversion. This is hard. We like to think we are generally good, most of the time. I’m good enough, aren’t I? As long as we’ve convinced ourselves that (at least!) we aren’t the class bully, the notorious gossip, or other worsts of the worsts, then we are likely to grow stagnant in our moral lives. But to be a serious Christian means to be serious about following Christ, the one who tells us to be “perfect” just as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48). Lent encourages us to better conform ourselves to Him—the one who gave us the Beatitudes, the one who is beatitude itself.

While we should make it a habit to examine our moral lives and continue to deepen our relationship with God, part of a healthy recognition of our imperfection is a corresponding dependence on (and hope in) God.  We are imperfect because we are human. We all have our own weaknesses, vices, and crosses. We all have ups and downs. Perhaps sometimes we do think we are the worst of sinners. Maybe we do think we are beyond conversion; that because we fall into the same sin over and over again, we are beyond hope—maybe even at the point of despair.

But thinking this way also does not correspond to reality, for God is mercy. Lent is about acknowledging our sin while also accepting God’s forgiveness. Lent is about denying ourselves while also making more room for God. If we think we have turned our backs on God, our neighbors, or even ourselves—even beyond the point of no return—then Lent is just for us. Lent can be one big encounter with God’s mercy, if we only let it be.

Finally, Lent prepares us for the central truth of the Christian faith, the Resurrection of Christ. It is this reality upon which all of Christianity stands. St. Paul proclaims that if Christ has not been raised, then our faith is in vain (1 Cor. 15:14). No Easter, no Lent. No Easter, no Christianity. This seems rather obvious. But do we truly realize what the Resurrection means? Or do we simply associate it with an annual celebration also devoted to human-sized rabbits and colored eggs? The Resurrection was the defining event of the first Christians’ faith. It transformed scared disciples into thundering preachers. It motivated determined believers to become willing martyrs. For these first Christians, the Resurrection meant death had been conquered. It meant that one day, we too shall be raised to new life—in our own bodies! Do we live with the Resurrection in mind—both Christ’s and ours? Even now, do we live with joyful hope, having taken the Resurrection to heart? Lent reminds us first that we are “dust.” But it also reminds us that this dusty body will one day be renewed. During Lent, we are encouraged to live with the Resurrection in view, as even now we have become partakers of the “divine nature” and temples of the Holy Spirit.

[1] 2nd-century Christian writer Irenaeus of Lyons refers to periods of fasting before the celebration of Easter. He also says these various customs had been handed on from prior Christian generations. Regardless of when Lent as a liturgical season became more firmly established, the practice of fasting has certainly been an integral part of the church’s spiritual life from the beginning.

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