This coming week, Christian believers throughout the world observe the stark observance of Ash Wednesday and so begin the penitential season of Lent.
Consisting of forty days, in commemoration of the time the Lord Jesus spent in the desert before starting his public ministry, Lent is a time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in which believers prepare themselves for the joyful celebration of the Paschal Mystery.
While the phrase “paschal mystery” is fundamentally Christian and should be a term readily known by every Christian disciple, most believers are unaware of its meaning and miss its significance.
With this observation in mind, let’s ask: What is the Paschal Mystery? Why does it require an ascetical season to prepare for its celebration?
The Paschal Mystery is nothing more or less than the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is the fulfillment of ancient prophecies, the purpose of his messianic mission in destroying sin and death, and the manifest expression of his immense love for us. The Paschal Mystery is the source of our belief in eternal life and the foundation of the hope we have of dwelling forever in heaven.
Anyone who claims the title of “Christian,” therefore, must realize what the Paschal Mystery is and what its role is in our desire for redemption.
It is for this reason that the believer needs Lent. The mystery of the Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection requires constant reflection and a re-living in the lives of believers in order for the mystery to be fully assimilated in our hearts and appreciated in our everyday lives. With the pace of life and the multiple distractions presented by our world, it’s too easy for a Christian to miss the mystery. And so, Lent comes and commands a pause. It orders us – through various penances, some universal to all believers, while others of a more personal choosing – to slow down and see the mystery, feel the love, and desire heaven above all things.
And so, Lent is not a season about self-help or self-improvement for their own sake. It’s not just about giving up caffeine or chocolate (although these could be good penances) or about eating right or being more punctual (although it could be good to improve these habits). No, above all these things, Lent is about the believer deepening in her knowledge and experience of the Suffering, Crucified, and Resurrected God who loves her and seeks to be with her. It’s about grasping – and being grasped by – the radical and self-emptying love of Jesus Christ.
A good Lent, therefore, is reflected in a devout and attentive celebration of Holy Week and Easter. The rejoicing that’s a part of these holiest days should not occur because the believer sees it as a reprieve from a dislikable and contested time of penance but because the believer has been purified even more from darkness and is able to more profoundly understand and share in the Lord’s Paschal Mystery.
The purpose of Lent, therefore, is a microcosm of the life and worldview of the Christian believer. Knowing themselves to be the sons and daughters of the Resurrection, everything they think, feel, and do is placed in the light and hope of eternity. This gives the disciple of Jesus Christ the strength to forgive an enemy, control their sexual passions, suffer patiently, and selflessly serve others. When the Resurrection is lived and heaven is seen as a real possibility for the righteous, then everything is worth it and everything becomes ordered to it.