Penitential time not meant to make us feel good about ourselves
by Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB
This is an excerpt from a homily given on Ash Wednesday at Holy Rosary Cathedral.
The difficult, and even painful, journey of conversion, of turning to God and trusting in him, is not a self-help operation.
Allowing oneself to be enveloped, enfolded, by the overwhelming mercy of God is the heart of the Gospel: “the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead.”
The Prophet Joel says, “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” We are being invited to embark upon a journey during which, by altering the routine of our daily life for 40 days, we strive to open our hearts to the Lord’s love and mercy.
Lent is my favourite time to welcome or to make flourish God’s presence in my life, to return to him with all my heart or to experience his love more deeply. In the words of Pope Francis at a penitential service last year, “Let us cast aside all that prevents us from racing towards him, unafraid of leaving behind those things which make us feel safe and to which we are attached.”
The elements of this spiritual journey – the tools that we need if this Lent is truly to be a time of spiritual renewal and reinvigoration – are prayer, fasting and almsgiving, all common to the tradition of Israel.
Through prayer we can turn to God with the confidence of children and deepen our friendship with him. Praying means saying to God, “I am not self sufficient. I need you. You are my life and my salvation.”
Lent is a time of prayer, of more intense prayer, more prolonged, more persevering, more ready to intercede before God for our brothers and sisters who are suffering or in need.
The second key element of our Lenten pilgrimage is fasting. I’m not talking about a fasting which makes us feel good about ourselves. Fasting only makes sense if it makes us question our security in ourselves, and if it also leads to some benefit for others, if it helps us to imitate the Good Samaritan, who bends down to the person in need and takes care of him.
Fasting involves choosing a sober lifestyle, a way of life that does not waste, a way of life that does not “throw away.” Fasting is a sign of the trust we place in God and in his providence.
Almsgiving is the third instrument in our Lenten toolbox. It points to giving freely, for in almsgiving one gives to someone without expecting anything in return. Gratuitousness should mark the Christian life, because it recognizes that we have received everything from God freely, without having earned it.
By our generosity we combat a mentality that calculates and measures everything. Almsgiving helps us to experience giving freely, which leads to freedom from the obsession of possessing and from the fear of losing what we have. By acts of penance, we learn to free ourselves from dependence on what is passing, and to train ourselves to be more sensitive and merciful. It is an invitation to simplicity and to sharing.