For the Church Universal, the Lenten Season is very much like a long retreat, to which we Christians are annually called to re-enter ourselves into the discipline of listening to God’s voice, so that we become able to overcome the temptations of the Evil One; and, thus, to find “the truth” that we are promised by Jesus that “will set (us) free” (John 8:32).
Beloved, the mystery of the human dilemma can be reduced into just a few words: We are created with an unbreakable approachableness to the Triune-God who made us in the divine image. Indeed, this relationship is the very foundation of our existence. Therefore, Lent is about the Truth and the truth of our very relationship to the Creator.
Christ, the divine “Word (Logos) that became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), embodies the truth of human existence; but the fact is, this is a truth to which fewer and fewer people in Western culture pay virtually any attention. Our openness to God, who is ever at work in history, is what grounds the very possibility of our living an existence that the Almighty would identify as “just” (see Matthew 1:19). The Holy Scriptures use the term “justice” in the sense of the ordering and directing of life so that mankind fulfills the existence we were given by the Creator as a gift to live. Sadly, however, we can and do choose to “fill” ourselves with many other things. Thus, firstly, in Lent, we have this desperate need for an honest review of personal endeavors: What exactly are we (pre)occupied with in life?
As an example, let me offer the following: Material goods are certainly useful and required in our daily existence. In fact, Jesus, over the course of his earthly ministry, was clearly concerned to heal the sick, feed the crowds, and would surely condemn the indifference that in our modern world still forces hundreds of millions into death through lack of food, clean water, and medicine. Yet, there is so much more to “justice” than just distributing the staple goods of life. For the Christian ethic teaches us that just as mankind needs bread, we have even a far greater need of God. In a sense, distributive justice is what we might call “horizontal.” This is to be complemented by a “vertical” dimension of life. The latter renders an authentic Christian life as something more than flat, more than what one can control, even more than what can be imagined (without the divine infusion of supernatural grace) with the limited human mind. The “vertical” dimension recognizes and seeks to fulfil mankind’s ultimate need to be in relationship with God. This is the life that the Almighty would identify as “just.” This is how the genuine Christian life really looks.
Lent is that time of the liturgical year set apart by Mother Church for her children to rediscover the “justice” of life. How? Well, by “looking to Jesus Christ the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2), He who lived the most authentic human life possible. Pope Benedict XVI put it this way, “Every day is a favorable moment of grace because every day presses us to give ourselves to Jesus, to trust in Him, to abide in Him, to share His lifestyle, to learn true love from Him, to follow Him in the daily fulfillment of the Father’s will, the one great law of life.”
Brothers and sisters, we learn most acutely from the One who has lived the most meaningful life of them all! The long retreat of Lent is about immersion in the life of Jesus. We follow Him all the way through the Cross to the Resurrection. We are faced with taking the glaring challenge of marveling at Christ’s genuine human existence. Does it speak to us? Are we passive observers, or do we allow what Jesus did to fundamentally change us?
From the wearing of ashes to participating in the Stations of the Cross – which culminates in Jesus being crucified – Lent declares to an unbelieving world the strong signs of the Church’s humiliation. On the Cross the Redeemer restored to us the dignity that belongs to us. The Church’s long Lenten retreat is, therefore, essentially an act of humility that means we recognize ourselves to be what we are: frail creatures, made from earth and destined to return to earth (Genesis 3:19), yet also made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and destined for glory with Him.
We are dust, yes, but also beloved, shaped by God’s love, brought to life by his vital breath, able to recognize His voice and respond to His invitation. We are free and therefore capable of disobeying him – of giving into the temptation of pride and self-sufficiency – or of obeying His call on our lives. Doing the latter takes humility. Humility is the virtue of a true relationship of unconditional agape love (see 1 Corinthians 13:4-7) with the Triune-God. From such humility comes the possibility that we will realize anew in this long Lenten retreat of 2021 that in our Faith we are called to become more and more like Jesus Christ.