We stand poised at the beginning of the Season of Lent, the traditional time within our Church when we prepare ourselves to celebrate the Paschal Mystery: the suffering, dying and rising to new life of Jesus Christ. Traditionally, a time of penitence and penance, it is also a time of hope and joy.
Most Catholic parishes around the world have already been gearing up and preparing for the Season of Lent. As we approach the wonderful feast of Easter, we are being provided with a variety of ways to reflect upon our lives, to evaluate our relationship with God and one another, and are being given many opportunities to take stock? to pray? and to renew our commitment to the Gospel.
For some communities, this means Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and Benediction each Sunday throughout Lent, a daily Lenten Liturgy for those unable to share the Eucharist in the morning, Liturgy of the Hours each day, Stations of the Cross for both adults and children, special reconciliation services, Tenebrae and Seder services - all culminating with the solemn celebration of Holy Week and the Triduum.
Once again we are given the opportunity to reflect upon the impact that the Paschal Mystery has in our lives. As we begin our journey through another season of Lent, the Liturgical Readings present us with themes that bring this into focus: On the First Sunday of Lent, we hear the story of the Temptation of Jesus in the desert; the Second speaks of the Transfiguration; the Third recalls the encounter with the woman at the well. The Fourth Sunday tells of the man born blind and the importance of the light of Christ in our lives; and finally, the story of Lazarus - the symbol of hope for all of us who come to new life in Christ.
The beginning of Christ's ministry on earth starts with an encounter between Jesus and Satan. First there is the promise of pleasure, the satisfaction of human hunger; then there is the offer of earthly power and wealth; and finally there is the subtle challenge: Prove you are the Son of God.
Cleverly and relentlessly, the spirit of evil plays the same fatal game with each one of us. He first reminds us that we are free, and then dangles before us his empty promises of satisfaction, pleasure, wealth, and power to win our allegiance. Day in and day out we face these choices. We are always being tempted to betray, to compromise, to prefer self to others, to prefer our desires over God's promise of Life, in some form or other. And in so many ways, people or circumstances around us constantly challenge us to show them our God.
I think it's important to note that when Jesus returned from his forty days in the desert, he went immediately to John to be baptized, and when John was arrested and put into prison, it was Jesus who continued to preach the Good News. But there was a big difference between the two.
John's preaching began with "Repent! The Kingdom of God is at hand." His was a call to repentance - a warning - a call to change our ways because something big and wonderful was soon coming.
The message of Jesus was - and continues to be: "Rejoice! The Kingdom of God is here!" His was an invitation - a call to experience the presence the presence of the Father in our every moment, our every breath, our every encounter. It is an invitation to enter into the Paschal Mystery of suffering, death and resurrection as deeply and as completely as He was about to.
The Paschal Mystery reminds us that God heals, He loves and He forgives. And when we feel Him close to us, His presence surrounds us, envelopes us and becomes part of us. Many of us struggle with our relationship to God. He is very often difficult to see, never answers us in terms that we would like, and never presents Himself in the concrete ways that we, as humans, could take as "visible signs." Most times, we dwell on our weaknesses and our failures? or we try to pretend that God couldn't possibly love us in the way that we are told He does.
Yet, all of us have had moments in our lives when the presence of God is real. It could have been in the kindness of a stranger, the embrace of a child, a quiet moment alone or in the words of a passing missionary. And if we are open to it, the mystery of God overpowers the stench of sin and death, the ugliness of suffering and pain and the foul odor of hatred and violence. The Cross of Christ reminds us that God's arms are opened wide in a loving embrace, that He has smashed the rock of the Tomb and that He has given us a new life in Himself.
This is what Lent reminds of. It is a preparation for Easter - but it is so much more. It reminds us of our own temptations. It reminds us of our weakness, and our sins, and our failures. It reminds of everything that tarnishes or warps Christ's image, whether in the individual or in the community.
More importantly, however, it reminds that God really doesn't care about these things. He only cares about us, and He loves us in spite of ourselves. Lent reminds us that our participation in the Paschal Mystery is not without suffering nor death, and that within our lived experiences, there is a sacred Presence and Love which constantly sustains us.
Our Lenten observances and practices are not ends in themselves, but are merely spiritual helps to draw us more deeply into oneness with all that Jesus is about. They help us to experience the fragrance of our God, to feel it all over our skin and in our hearts and our souls. And they reaffirm our ability to spread that fragrance among each other.
And so we again enter into the invitation and the challenge of Lent, well aware that our struggle with the spirit of evil goes on. We acknowledge weakness and failure; but we are reassured of the power of the saving death and resurrection of Jesus. Hopefully we will try to spend these days strengthening our faith, our hope and our love. We should spend some time during these days walking with Jesus in prayer, worship, sacramental encounter, self-denial and acts of Christ-like humility.
Together we can make the victory of the Paschal Mystery more visible and tangible in our own lives and in the lives of those around us.