Lent Is Coming.
Lent is defined in the glossary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church as “the liturgical season of forty days which begins with Ash Wednesday and ends with the celebration of the Paschal Mystery (Easter Triduum). Lent is the primary penitential season in the Church’s liturgical year, reflecting the forty days Jesus spent in the desert in fasting and prayer.”
This year, Ash Wednesday falls on March 6. On this day we are marked with ashes upon the forehead. Traditionally, ashes were placed on the forehead accompanied by the words God spoke to Adam and Eve after they first sinned: “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). These words are to humble us by reminding each of us of our own sinfulness.
During the season of Lent we are called to dwell on this sinfulness. We are called to make reparation for the sins of our past and to work to make ourselves better. Recall the words at the end of the Act of Contrition: “I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid the near occasion of sin.” These are not merely words we repeat in the confessional. These are truly a promise of things that we should do at all times, but that we especially focus on during Lent.
Let us take a moment to examine these words. “I firmly resolve.” This is a promise, a vow. This is not, an “I’ll try.” As Yoda said, “Do, or do not, there is no try.” So too with us. We either work to sanctify ourselves, or we do not. The choice is ours. In reciting this Act of Contrition, we are promising to do rather than do not.
Notice, however, the words that immediately follow our promise: “with the help of Thy grace.” No one can do this alone. We must ever rely on God’s love and His mercy. We must look to the Cross as our hope. As Christ redeemed us through His Passion and Death we must likewise learn to die to ourselves, and to unite ourselves to Christ in sacrifice.
That is the heart of what it means to “do penance.” The Venerable Fulton Sheen said that “everyone who suffers is on a cross. Some ask to be taken down, like the thief on the left. Others want to be taken up, like the thief on the right.” We remember that we are called to be like God, Who “humbled Himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8) and so join in suffering, as even He suffered. We must suffer with Him unto the end that we might, like the repentant thief, be remembered by Christ in His Kingdom.
We also promise to “sin no more.” Perhaps a better way to understand this phrase is to “work to sanctify myself.” If you start Lent with the promise of “I will never again in my life sin” then you will likely fail. Our fallen human nature makes us easily susceptible to temptation. As a result, coming right out of the gate saying, “I’ll never sin again” is similar to never having climbed even a small hill before and yet saying, “I’m going to go climb Mount Everest.” Rather than being impractical, we must train ourselves like mountain climbers who strive to climb Mt. Everest. We must go through spiritual boot camp if we are to fight the spiritual warfare that is all too real. That boot camp will help us “avoid the near occasion of sin” and thus “sin no more.” The programs of the camp are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
On a campus such as ours, prayer can be easy. Here at the University of Notre Dame you are never too far from a chapel. Take a moment of your time and visit a chapel. When you walk in you will dip your hand in the holy water, reminding yourself of your baptism and the washing away of sin by the Precious Blood of the Lamb falling from the Cross.
Prayer doesn’t have to be a big thing. Perhaps prayer is something small. Say a Hail Mary every time you see the Golden Dome or make a trip to the Grotto on a regular basis. During Lent, you may wish to make a promise to pray the Stations of the Cross regularly. Perhaps prayer for you is simply the reading of a spiritual book. Or perhaps you will take the time this Lent to learn the beauty of silence, to simply sit which the Lord and be still. “My heart is restless, oh Lord, until it rests in you,” prays St. Augustine. Let us learn to take a moment and simply rest in His Presence.
The next program of spiritual boot camp is fasting. I encourage you to decide on something, or multiple things, to give up this Lent. It can be anything: food, time, entertainment, electronics, or perhaps even a promise to dedicate more time to school work or to exercise. Fasting is the way in which we most easily unite ourselves with Christ in suffering. Remember, it’s not suffering unless it hurts. So, when choosing what you will fast from, make it something difficult. But here again, know your limits and make your fasting expectations reasonable.
Lastly is almsgiving. This is often thought of in relation to money. Yet, being a college student can make giving up money a little difficult considering that college students are broke. This means that you can find something else of yours to give up. Perhaps it’s the giving up of your time for a friend, or maybe just learning to listen rather than speak, or even just learning to smile and bring a little happiness to someone else’s day.
There you have it. The boot camp curriculum is complete: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These are the keys to living out a holy Lent. However, there is one more suggestion to make your Lent even better. Remember the words of Christ, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’” (Mt. 15:7-8). This is His great exhortation for you to go about your sacrificing in private. Do not make a show of your sacrifices; do not complain. Embrace the sacrifice and let it draw your heart to the Sacred Heart. Do not make a showing of your suffering for then your hearts will be far from Him.
Brace yourselves! Lent is coming. It will be a long forty days, but they can be a great forty days. Enter into this Lent with an open heart. Let the Lord into your heart. Embrace His Cross. Suffer with Him. “Be sober and alert. Your opponent the devil is prowling about like a roaring lion. Resist him, solid in your faith, knowing that your fellow believers throughout the world undergo the same sufferings” (1 Pet. 5:8-9). Do this, and you will gain the habit of a holy and healthy relationship with God that can, should, and will extend past those forty days and into a lifetime and, through the mercy of God, and eternity with Him who knew you before you were born.
I urge you to experience regularly the Sacrament of the Eucharist where you truly receive the Lord, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. Experience also, the Sacrament of Reconciliation on a regular basis. Go, ask God’s forgiveness. He is there, waiting for you. As you say your Act of Contrition remember that you are truly making a promise to Him. You are promising to be better – to “do penance, sin no more, and avoid the near occasion of sin.”
Basilica – Monday through Friday 11– 11:30 a.m., 4:45– 5:15 p.m.
Basilica – Monday through Thursday 7 p.m.
Sacred Heart Crypt Church – Saturdays 10 – 11 a.m.
Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament:
10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday through Friday in the Notre Dame, Our Mother Chapel in CoMo (Benediction is at 5 p.m.)
Patrick is a freshman studying mathematics and theology. He would like you to make a trip to the Grotto and pray for all the priests you know. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.