The season of Lent begins on February 18th, Ash Wednesday. In these days before Lent begins, I encourage you to think about your plans for the forty days of Lent, the penance you intend to do. Reflect on how you intend to make a good Lent, or more importantly, what God desires for you to help you to turn away from sin and draw closer to Him.
In the prayer over the people at the end of the liturgy of Ash Wednesday, the priest prays: Pour out a spirit of compunction, O God, on those who bow before your majesty.… What does this word “compunction” mean? It means being enlightened or made aware of our sins and faults. It comes from the Latin verb “compungere” which means “to prick.” So it is a puncture, a prick of sorrow. If we’re going to make a good Lent, we need to have this sorrow for our sins. We need our consciences to be pricked. We need to recognize and be aware that we have faults. Saint John the Apostle wrote: If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
When we have compunction of heart, we are able to see the darkness of sin in our lives. Pope Francis says: Walking in darkness means being overly pleased with ourselves, believing that we do not need salvation. That is darkness! When we continue on this road of darkness, it is not easy to turn back. So we need to honestly look at our lives, admit our sins. This is the starting point for having a good Lent. It is only through repentance and conversion that we can live our true identity as Christians, as “children of the light.”
The essential first step in returning to God is to recognize that we are sinners and to acknowledge our sins. Think about King David in the Old Testament. He sinned gravely against the Lord and was rebuked by the prophet Nathan. David then exclaimed in prayer: I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight. David had been walking in darkness, but he repented and returned to the Lord. There are many other Biblical stories, including the parable of the prodigal son, that convey the same message. There can be no conversion without the acknowledgment of one’s own sins. Only then can we experience the love that is greater than sin: divine mercy.
Our Savior began His public preaching with these words: Repent, and believe in the Gospel. Jesus invites us to accept the good news of His merciful love. It’s not good news if we erroneously think that we are perfect and do not need His gift of salvation. In Lent, we hear anew Jesus’ call to repent. He says (in Greek) Metanoeite, translated into English as Repent. It means to make a metanoia, a conversion, a radical change of mind and heart. It is necessary to turn away from evil in order to enter God’s kingdom of love and peace.
We need to stand before the Lord in honesty and truth, admitting our sinfulness. Pope Francis says that “we must never masquerade before God.” This requires the virtue of humility. In this context, the Holy Father says that “shame is a virtue.” He calls it “blessed shame.” The Pope says we need to have the ability to be ashamed and that this is the virtue of the humble. The humble person is ashamed of his or her sins. Of course, Pope Francis is not talking about destructive shame in which a person hates himself. He is talking about healthy shame, which he calls “a true Christian virtue.” When one has this “blessed shame,” one then can approach the Lord with a humble heart which God says ‘He will not spurn.’
One important Lenten resolution for all of us should be to go to confession. Ashamed of our sins, we go to Jesus and say like King David Against you, O Lord, I have sinned. Or like the prodigal son said when he returned to his father: Father, I have sinned against God and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. What did the father do? He threw his arms around his son’s neck and kissed him. He put a fine robe on him and had a banquet to celebrate his son’s return. That’s what happens every time that we go to confession. God our Father is filled with joy. He forgives us, so great is His love for us.
Besides the sacrament of Penance, we are also called to “do penance” during Lent. This helps to reestablish the balance and harmony broken by sin, to change direction, to walk in the light and not in darkness. Outward acts of penance are very helpful for growth in our spiritual lives. They help to make amends for our sins and for those of others. I encourage you to think about what voluntary acts of penance you will offer to God this Lent. Fasting and almsgiving are especially recommended during Lent. Choose a Lenten penance or sacrifice that will help you to grow in the Christian virtues. Spiritual discipline is needed for true progress. It is a way to take up the cross of Jesus.
Finally, I wish to emphasize the importance of Lenten prayer. I urge everyone to make a prayer resolution for Lent. Daily Mass is certainly a great resolution. Stations of the Cross is another wonderful devotion during Lent, a prayerful means to enter into the mystery of Our Lord’s passion and death. Or you may wish to try the daily rosary or daily Scripture meditations. There are an abundance of spiritual practices and devotions in our Catholic tradition. I don’t encourage you to have a dozen resolutions. Pick one or a few and be faithful to them.
As we receive ashes on Ash Wednesday, may we do so with the intention of doing penance! Most importantly, may we heed the call of the Lord to repent and believe in the Gospel, to take up the cross and follow Him! May God bless you with a good and fruitful Lent this year!
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