By Bishop James Conley
This is the lesson of Lent: We are mortals. We each come into this life as a loving creation of the Lord. We each are called to know him, to love him, and to serve him during our short sojourn on earth. We each will face our deaths. And each of us will face our judgment.
When Lent begins and ashes are distributed on Ash Wednesday, a cross is traced upon our foreheads, and we hear a reminder. “Remember, you are dust, and to dust you will return,” or “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”
This message is really very simple. We will die, and we will face the Lord. We must be prepared to meet him. That is the reminder of Lent.
Blessed John Henry Newman wrote that the Lord has given us Lent as a grace, to help us turn away from our sins, and to prepare for the judgment we will face. He said that Lent is the opportunity to turn away from sin, through sacrifice, even when that is difficult.
“All sin brings affliction,” Newman wrote. “We have no means of judging others, but we may judge ourselves. Let us judge ourselves, that we be not judged. Let us afflict ourselves, that God may not afflict us. Let us come before Him with our best offerings, that He may forgive us.
“Give back some of God’s gifts to God, that you may safely enjoy the rest. Fast, or watch, or abound in alms, or be instant in prayer, or deny yourselves society, or pleasant books, or easy clothing, or take on you some irksome task or employment; do one or other, or some, or all of these,” Newman encouraged.
“Ever bear in mind that Day which will reveal all things, and will test all things ‘so as by fire,’ and which will bring us into judgment ere it lodges us in heaven.”
Newman’s advice was sound. We must “ever bear in mind” the day of our judgment. And, if we are smart, we will use the season of Lent to begin building the habits that help us turn away from sin, and toward holiness.
Father Roger Landry, a dear friend of mine, wrote recently that, “Lent is not about making minor course corrections in our lives, but about experiencing a radical and total conversion… meant to be a Passover from mediocrity to sanctity; from being a part-time disciple to inserting ourselves fully into Christ’s paschal mystery; dying to ourselves so that Christ can truly live within us.”
“Lent,” Father Landry wrote, “is meant to help us recalibrate our entire existence and propel us toward becoming the Christians that our faith calls us to be.”
In short, Lent is a call to a radical change of life. We may not keep every sacrifice we undertake, we may fail and struggle, but Lent is a call to turn away from sin radically, to give up the attachments to sin we think we never could abandon, and to accept the grace of God to help us become holy.
Lent is a time to turn away from situations and habits of sin, even if we think we can never escape or overcome them, and cast ourselves entirely into the mercy of God.
This kind of Lent is scary, exhilarating, and demanding. But Lent is truly a time to make the changes we already know that God is calling us to make. And as a result, Lent is a time to trust.
To have that kind of Lent, we need a plan. We need to plan to pray, to fast, and to be charitable; to give alms.
In the Diocese of Lincoln, we’ve recently begun an 18-month Eucharistic Family Rosary Crusade; an initiative calling families and parishes to commit to a daily rosary and weekly Eucharistic Adoration, and to entrust themselves to the intercession of the Mother of God. You’ve likely heard about this crusade, and you will hear more in the weeks and months ahead. But by committing to the rosary, daily, for Lent, you will begin to grow in trust for the Lord; and to turn away from sin.
We are all called to fast in Lent; to offer up small indulgences, and we should plan to forego the indulgences we most prefer—not because doing so will, by itself, make us holy—but because unifying a small suffering with Christ on the cross will help us to accept and entrust to Christ the suffering that sometimes comes from radical discipleship.
And we are called to charity. We should give to our parishes, to the poor, to our schools and communities. We should also consider the almsgiving of the Rice Bowl, a small opportunity for charity from Catholic Relief Services, which serves the “poorest of the poor” around the world.
With prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, we can begin to turn from sin and take up true discipleship of the Lord.
Each of us knows the sins hidden in our hearts; the ones we fear when we think of our judgments, the ones we know we need to give up. We don’t always know that we can trust the Lord to help us. But we can. God will judge us. But he also will give us the grace to overcome our sins, and to become holy. He’s calling us to be saints, and he wants to help us grow in unity with him. This Lent, let’s turn to him—radically and courageously.