February 6, 2024 // Perspective

This Lent, Let God Move You

“You are merciful to all, O Lord, and despise nothing that you have made. You overlook people’s sins, to bring them to repentance, and you spare them, for you are the Lord our God.”

Such are the words, taken from the Book of Wisdom, with which the Church begins the Lenten season. The entrance antiphon of Ash Wednesday lays out a clear and profound theology of Lent – and reminds us of a few essential principles for our approach to this time of preparation.

For the sake of brevity, I propose a reflection on one key aspect of these opening words of Lent: God is the main actor of this season and of our lives. Notice how the subject of all the action in this short morsel from Wisdom is all God. He is merciful, He despises nothing He has made, He brings His people to repentance, and He spares them. This serves us so well as a reminder of the beginning principle of the Christian life: God loved us first. God is the One who takes the initiative – we are only responding. Thus, even in Lent, God remains the principal actor.

This draws us away from a tempting approach to Lent – what I like to call the “self-improvement plan Lent.” If we confuse the truth and think that somehow we are the first actors/primary movers of our Lenten pilgrimage, then we can easily fall into the trap of thinking Lent is a time to “work on myself” or to finally adopt the change proposed by the world to “be a better version of myself.” Thus, the rich communal/ecclesial task of repentance, purification, and preparation that Lent really is becomes subject to our own ideas and manipulations – and dies alone in its obsessive individualism. Ash Wednesday becomes just another experience of New Year’s resolutions – and we will likely experience the same failures of such resolutions that many of us often do by mid-January. To be clear, this is not to discourage self-improvement in a general sense but rather to ground our approach toward reliance on grace and our free will more than a Pelagian self-fixation.

Far from being a defeating realization – or an encouragement away from adopting a meaningful and practical penance for Lent – this is a freeing and uplifting assertion. God is the One who initiates, and this remains true of every Lenten experience that makes an impact on us. After all, in one of the verses from Wisdom left out from the antiphon above, we read, “How could a thing remain, unless you willed it; or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you?” (Wis 11:25).

Lent, then, is really about opening a space in our hearts, minds, and souls to allow God to enter anew. What are the places where we find darkness – especially darkness we want to hide from God – and what is a penance that can begin to open the door to let God’s light in? That is the worthwhile penance, precisely because it relies on God as the first mover and first lover and not on some achievement of our own that precedes his love and mercy. Even looking at what Wisdom is saying to us, God’s mercy draws us to repentance, which draws us to an even greater reliance and trust in God – after all, we are finite beings who sin against an infinite God, and there is never a point where we could “make up” for our sins. Rather, His love comes to us, draws us into true repentance, and allows us to be taken up anew into His divine life and love.

At the onset of the season of Lent, it is helpful to remember from where we begin – these first words of the Liturgy give us a good orientation. It is also helpful to remember where we are going. So let us preview the last words of the liturgy of Good Friday: The priest will pray, “May abundant blessing, O Lord, we pray, descend upon Your people, who have honored the death of Your Son in the hope of their resurrection: may pardon come, comfort be given, holy faith increase, and everlasting redemption be made secure. Through Christ Our Lord.”

May it be so for all of us as we engage the season of Lent with a focus on God as the principal actor of our lives and His love as what draws us – through prayer, fasting, and giving alms – into a greater outpouring of grace here and now for the glory of the life to come.

Father Mark Hellinger is Parochial Vicar at St. John the Baptist Church in Fort Wayne. He will write weekly reflections throughout Lent in Today’s Catholic.

* * *

The best news. Delivered to your inbox.

Subscribe to our mailing list today.