“Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart.” (Joel 2:12) This is the first line of the first Scripture reading we hear as Lent begins. We are being called to turn from our sinful habits toward a renewed life with God. As a result these 40 days are a time in which we reflect upon our spiritual lives more deeply than usual. The season of Lent is given us so we may we repent of our sin, pray for growth in holiness, give alms, and make some sacrifice in order to grow in mercy and compassion, uniting more deeply with the suffering of others. And of course, we remember the sacrifice of the Suffering Servant, Jesus, who took on the sin of the world for our sake.
It may seem strange, however, that the Church refers to this time as a joyful season. Because of the focus on penance and the suffering of Jesus, many mistakenly see this season as a time of sadness and sorrow. It decidedly is not. Perhaps there is a feel of somberness because everything gets muted, the church vestments go purple, and the emphasis is on renunciation which can be difficult. We do remember the suffering of Jesus, and yes, this is a cause for sadness. But the story does not end in death. Lent is about the great gift we have been given by God who sent His only Son into the world to save us. Salvation is a great joy! This gift, an unfathomable grace, gives us joy because of the immense love with which it was given. We also rejoice because we have been given a chance to clean up that which has become marred by sin. The journey (Lent) is as important as the destination (Easter). We are working with Jesus, letting Him lead us during these 40 days. The joy in this is that we will not be alone and He does hear our prayer for help. In short, Lent is a time when we are deluged with great waves of grace. It is nothing less than this.
What is most wondrous about God is that He longs for us more than we could ever long for Him. He calls us to return to Him with our whole heart which means that He wants to forgive us of our failings. Our sin creates a wedge between us and God. It builds up like a wall and separates us from the life of grace which He intends for us. But God loves us so much that He sends help in many forms so we might recognize that no matter what it is we have done, we are always His beloved children. He sends grace after grace, building upon the graces of the sacraments we have already received so that we always find our way home to Him.
The author of the Book of Sirach wrote that God gave us the gift of free choice. “If you choose you can keep the commandments; it is loyalty to do his will…. Before man are life and death, whichever he chooses shall be given him.” (Sirach 15:15,17) God does not force us to keep the commandments; He gave them to us so that we would know the way to stay closest to Him. He sent His Son, Jesus, so that we would have one like ourselves, though also God, who would liberate us from the power of sin and death. Jesus taught us what the Father intended from the beginning: the law is about love. If we love one another as we are loved by the Father, with mercy and compassion, then we will be choosing the way that leads to life.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? But we know that life is anything but easy. Therefore God is constantly showering us with graces of His love to help us navigate the twists, turns, pitfalls, temptations, sufferings and losses that we will all encounter. We deserve none of this grace, but it is not about what we deserve: it is about a love so great God cannot contain it. We are freely offered His gifts, but we do need to work with the grace we have been given. It is not a free ride to heaven once we are baptized. We must continually choose life by recognizing our areas of weakness and sin, asking for the specific graces we need, going to reconciliation, doing acts of penance and service, asking not only for forgiveness of our individual sins, but also praying for forgiveness for the sins of the world.
It is important that we realize that while Lent is about growth in our individual relationship with God, it is not only about ourselves. Our spiritual life concerns the world. Jesus did not save only one of us: He offered salvation to all people through His death and resurrection. Therefore Lent is about all of us collectively praying for reparation of the effects of sin on the entire world. We do not only pray for our personal, individual return to the Lord. We also pray for the return of all those who do not know the Father or His Son, all who have never heard the Gospel message, all whose hearts have grown cold or hardened, and all who wish to do evil. We do penance and pray for all the broken places in the world that are suffering from natural disaster, drought, famine, war, disease, and indifference. We pray especially for the people who live in poverty, hunger, fear, persecution, marginalization, are war-torn, or victimized by injustice. We pray for those who suffer from neglect, loneliness, the ravages and loss due to debilitating illness or grief, or who carry the burden of being caretakers for those who are suffering horribly, powerless to do anything to take away the pain. We do penance and pray for those who are imprisoned by mental illness, addiction, or who have fallen into crime and have been incarcerated. We pray also for the victims of crime. Our prayers are for the same waves of grace we receive individually to be a healing force in the world around us.
As we pray, we can utilize the graces of faith, hope, and love. We would not pray if we did not believe that God hears our prayer. Even if we do not see the response and even if we do not receive the answer we sought or it comes in a different way than the one we expected, we do know that our Lenten efforts are fruitful. We know this because Jesus died and rose victoriously. We know this because we have the evidence of waves upon waves of grace throughout history and throughout our lives; it is the power which combats sin, ours and that of the world. If not for His grace the world would have ceased to exist a long time ago. It is grace that keeps us going. It is grace which expands our hearts to see our own sinfulness, recognizing that we have no right to judge another who sins since we are sinners, too. It is grace which expands our hearts in compassion and mercy. Grace is in the joy of a new day and in the recognition of how many gifts we have been given. And strange as it seems, it is grace that we receive when we call out into the silence and hear no discernible response. Where is the grace in that? It is in the fact that we go on. We may feel defeated, but God helps us to go on, to take one more step, to pray one more prayer, and to stay in the struggle. Because of the burden, we might not notice at first that the pain we feel has not annihilated us or that a small light has shone if even for a moment. But the hope of making it through one more day, one more hour, one more moment, is what sustains us. It is God who has helped us, and it is this road that He travels with us. We are not alone, and even if we do not know it, we are enveloped in waves of grace.
Lent is not something we do in rote obedience to a relentless liturgical calendar. Our Lenten practices do heal us and they do heal the world. We choose our practices for many reasons: because Jesus suffered for us and offered salvation; because we are broken and in need of healing; because the world is broken and in need of healing; because we are helping Him to build the Kingdom; because we know He loves us and, in gratitude, it is all we have to offer in return for the waves of grace that wash over us daily. We do it because we rejoice in so great a love and so great a Lord.
May we pray for waves of God’s grace to wash over us and over our world! May we trust that grace is being given, and receive it with open hearts! May we pray for the grace to persevere during this Lenten journey, asking for the courage to see what we may need to change within ourselves! May we rely on faith, hope, and love as we allow the Lord to show us what action we are called to take in order to participate in healing the world just a bit more with every encounter! And may we continue to be a source of mercy and compassion, imitating the One we serve! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
(For Julie, with love.) The first image is a color woodblock print called The Great Wave of Kanagawa. It is from a series of 36 views of Mount Fuji by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. (1760-1849). The prints are in the public domain. Information on them, and a view of all 36 of the prints, can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirty-six_Views_of_Mount_Fuji
I chose this print because it reminded me of how grace can wash away all that needs to be cleansed, that grace can come in both power and beauty, and that grace is always alive and moving, such as the sea.
The icon is The Holy Spirit, The Paraclete, The Lord and Giver of Life, by Fr. William Hart McNichols. It can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-holy-spirit-the-lord-the-giver-of-life-the-paraclete-sender-of-peace-william-hart-mcnichols.html
All the photos are my own. The first was taken on the island of Oahu near the north shore. The second is Multnomah Falls in Oregon. (Sometimes grace can pour over us in breathtaking beauty.) And the third, at the end of the post, was also taken in Oregon, at the coast.
Heart Speaks to Heart