There is a deep and abiding beauty to the journey of Lent that many in our modern era have forgotten.
For some, Lent has been reduced to a series of empty abstinence rituals and its sorrowful joy has been swept aside. For others, it has become a piece of bitter nostalgia that seems to have had its season. But in these troubled times, there are those who have come to understand that the 40 days before Easter is a period of solitude and grace, a walk along a lonely path that mirrors the struggle our Savior endured as he made his way along the road up to Calvary’s hill.
The Scriptures are crying out for us to enter into the wilderness of prayer, fasting, and self-giving, where we may once more experience the bitter-sweet dance of death that leads to the joyful celebration that is ours on the morn of the resurrection. As we open the word and step onto the stage of salvation’s story, there is a new dawn awaiting us, the dawn of our renewal in Christ.
“ … To Dust We Shall Return”
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of this solemn pilgrimage through the days of Lent. The sign of our faith is traced on our foreheads with ashes, a holy reminder that we are made of dust. It is a call to embrace our own self-surrender in order that we may discover our true purpose in Christ. Adam’s sin has marred our souls; and yet, the One who left Heaven’s throne to take on flesh has walked the road of redemption for the ones he loves to bring life from death.
The readings for the holy day lead us into a state of expectancy and self-denial. The words of the prophet Joel (Joel 2:12-18) call us to assemble and sanctify a holy fast, to repent and return to the Lord with fasting and weeping so transparent and intense that it becomes an act of worship.
Saint Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2 that God’s call is immediate and transformational:
Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. (2 Corinthians 6:2b)
Our commitment to the journey of Lent is a personal testimony that we, as ambassadors for Christ, are to proclaim to the whole world. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross unites our redeemed sinful past with our certain future hope in an ever-present moment of becoming. As we walk the path of perfection through the disciplines of Lent, we present ourselves as living sacrifices sharing a message of hope to a dying world.
Taking on the Character of Christ
The Old Testament saints took hold of the future hope that was to come in Christ through their own three-fold experience of prayerful self-denial. Believers like Daniel, Nehemiah, and Esther took on the character of Christ to come as they surrendered themselves, fasted, and prayed for deliverance for the People of God. Though the Scriptures present each of them as showing no signs of sin, they willingly took on the transgressions of the people as they pleaded with God for forgiveness and restoration. Their pattern of prayer and repentance powerfully pointed the way to the One who was to come.
Their prayers on behalf of the people began with praise, dove into the depths of confession, and rose up in glad thanksgiving and heartfelt supplication for deliverance.
Daniel turned his face to the Lord, seeking him “by prayer and supplications with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.” He praised God’s mercy, laid out the sins of the people, and cried out for God to let his face shine once more upon the sanctuary that had been destroyed, all for the sake of God’s holy Name (Daniel 9:3-19).
Nehemiah spent many days in fasting and prayer, opening his mind and heart to the struggles of the people who had greatly sinned and been scattered by the hand of the Almighty. He recited the promises of his great God and took upon himself the sins of the people, so much so that they became his sins as well. And yet, he was confident that God, in His infinite mercy, would grant him success when he went to the king to ask to return to the exiles in Jerusalem to rebuild the city that was in ruins (Nehemiah 1:1-11).
Esther removed her splendid apparel and covered her head with ashes and dung, laying on the earth and pleading for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to extend his righteousness to those who were under the sentence of death, and deliver them from their enemies. She despised her royal position as she wept bitter tears for her people, trusting that God would give her the words to speak to the king that would lead to their salvation (Esther 14:1-19).
Lent is our time to seek the Lord God with prayer, fasting, and selfless giving. In this season of solitude, we turn our faces toward the One who calls us to build the heavenly city in his name. We plead for mercy for the sins of humanity and immerse ourselves in a joyful time of inner transformation as we complete in our sufferings what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his Body, the Church (Colossians 1:24).
Shaped in the Quiet, Secret Place
In the Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18), Jesus teaches us about the true nature of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. He calls us to enter into a secret inner chamber, a place where God alone can see the depth of our hearts and work his will in our lives through these daily disciplines. The One who formed us in our mother’s wombs allows his grace to bring rebirth within us through the journey of Lent.
Each individual passage in the reading ends with the same phrase: “… and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” In this quiet, secret place God will shape our souls by walking with us through the wilderness of Lent to the dawn of the resurrection. In that desolate setting, where Christ undoes the sins of Adam and Eve, we come face to face with the three-fold sin of the Fall:
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate. (Genesis 3:6)
Saint John explains sin’s effect on our souls today:
For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world. (1 John 2:16)
Our Lord, who fasted, prayed, and surrendered himself to the Father’s will, overcame each temptation of the Fall, answering Satan from the holy word, proclaiming that God alone is our true source of life and the only worthy object of our worship. As we take on the disciplines of Lent, we too are challenged to submit to our Creator and empty ourselves that we may be filled with the love of Christ. Our fasting, prayer, and almsgiving allow us to let go of the things of this world, silencing the voices in our souls crying out in selfishness so that we may experience more joyfully the power of the resurrection in our lives.
Trial Leads to Transformation
Throughout Lent, the Liturgy of the Word challenges us to walk the path to perfection right up to the hill of Golgotha, where, like our Lord, we must lay down our lives before the Father. If we immerse ourselves in these daily disciplines we can approach the days of Holy Week with a servant’s heart, ready to pour ourselves into the sacred mystery of redemption, to face the agony of the crucifixion, to keep vigil on that darkest of nights, and to rise up in joy on the morning when we celebrate the resurrection of the Lord.
The trial we experience through our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving is but a taste of the ultimate sacrifice Jesus made on the cross. Yet, it opens us up in that still and solemn loneliness to the profound truth that leads us to that perfect fast that God demands:
“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, Here I am.” (Isaiah 58:6-9)
Through the days of Lent, God reveals to us our sinful self-absorption. We are made aware that we are like the nails that pierced the hands and feet of our Savior. We see most clearly the perfect love of Christ that allowed our sins to hold him to that cross.
Because of Christ’s journey to Calvary, our lives have been inscribed onto his sacred nail-scarred hands and our names written into the Book of Life. In our solitude and sorrow, we come to recognize the ugliness of our transgressions and the beauty of his supreme act of love. As we yield to the cross through these sorrowful disciplines, we identify more fully with the Savior who came to set us free.
Garments of Worship
There is an absolutely beautiful phrase in the additional material of the book of Esther found in the Catholic translations of the Bible:
On the third day, when she [Esther] ended her prayer, she took off the garments in which she had worshiped, and clothed herself in splendid attire (Esther 15:1; emphasis mine).
This is a perfect picture of the season of Lent. As we take up the disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, we are daring to put on the sorrowful garments of worship, to empty ourselves so that we may be filled with the certainty of joy that is ours in Christ. We are called to embrace his once-for-all eternal sacrifice and to rejoice in the newness of life on Easter when we can once more put on the splendid garments of the resurrection.
Jesus our Lord gave the ultimate expression of worship in his crucifixion. He willingly took the bloody stripes of the scourging and the crown of thorns. He endured the jeering of the mob enraged and bore in his body the scars from the nails in his hands and feet and the spear thrust into his side. His supreme self-surrender now allows us to put aside the weight of our sin and to cast our eyes upon the One who for the joy set before Him, endured the cross and scorned its shame (cf. Hebrews 12:1-2).
Lent is our time to clothe ourselves with self-denial and stand in the shadow of the cross for the sake of our Savior. As we surrender our bodies and our lives to Jesus, we join as the Church in true worship before heaven’s throne. We discover that these holy disciplines are not burdens to bear but sacred exercises that liberate us and lead us into the splendor that is ours as believers in Christ.
Let us embrace this sacred season in all its fullness, walking the path through the crucifixion to the empty tomb, so that we may live transformed lives in total surrender to the One who surrendered his life for us.