After an extended Ordinary Time, Christian believers will soon begin the penitential season of Lent. It will begin with the rather stark, annual observance of Ash Wednesday.
Lent is a time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, in which believers seek to dive deeper into the living out of the Paschal Mystery in their lives. Lent is forty days in spiritual observance of the forty days of the Lord Jesus in the desert.
All of this begs the question: What is the Paschal Mystery? And why are ascetical practices needed to participate in it?
The Paschal Mystery is the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is the fulfillment of ancient prophecies, the purpose of his saving mission in destroying sin and death, and is the manifest expression of his immense love for us. The Paschal Mystery is the source of our belief in eternal life. It is the foundation of all our hopes.
Every believer, therefore, needs to know what the Paschal Mystery is and why it’s essential to the Christian way of life.
It is for this reason that we need Lent.
The mystery of the Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection calls out to be re-lived every day in the life of believers. In baptism, we become members of Christ’s own body. We becomes participants in his Passion, Death, and Resurrection.
With the pace of our world and its multiple distractions, it’s too easy for us to miss the mystery. We need some help in refocusing and reorienting our lives to the fundamental mystery of our faith. And so, Lent comes to us as a help. It demands some reflection. It compels us – through various penances and ascetical practices – to choose the way of the Lord Jesus once again. Lent points us to the passion and suffering of life that we sometimes want to avoid, or the death to ourselves or the grieving of our fallen world that we’d prefer to avoid, or the Resurrection to newness of life that we’d rather neglect since it realigns and humbles everything else in our lives.
Lent brings us to a full stop, puts ashes on our foreheads, makes us abstain from meat, calls us to prayer and to the poor, and summons us to other ascetical practices, so that the value of our lives and the purpose of our discipleship can be rediscovered. Lent takes our souls and moves them to a renewed focus on the Paschal Mystery. Lent says to us, “The Paschal Mystery is what life is all about. Keep your eyes on this mystery.”
The penitential season of Lent, therefore, is not merely about self-help, or self-improvement, or self-therapy for their own sake. Such things can border on pride or narcissism. Lent is not just about giving up caffeine or chocolate or about eating right, starting a fitness program, or being more punctual. While any of these could be good within an overall living out of the Paschal Mystery, especially when they are intended as a means to give greater service to others, they are not the reason for the Lenten season.
No holds barred, Lent is about a deepening in our knowledge and experience of the Suffering, Crucified, and Resurrected God who loves us and seeks union with us. Lent is about experiencing our souls pining and grasping for God, as well as the deeper realization of being grasped by God through the self-emptying love of Jesus Christ.
It is for this reason that Lent points us to Holy Week, in which we liturgically celebrate the very Paschal Mystery we have been living in our daily lives. Lent prepares us to observe Holy Week. It helps us to spiritually participate in the sacred liturgies and to say, as we witness the liturgical re-representation of the Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection, “Yes, I know this mystery. I’ve lived this mystery – it’s a part of me.”
The joy of Easter is not meant to be born from the conclusion of Lent and its ascetical practices, but from the Resurrection of the Lord, as we see the fulfillment of our every hope and desire. Having been purified and refocused by a good Lent, we can experience the victory of the Lord Jesus over sin, death, and the darkness of this world. This is the purpose of Lent. This is the fruit of a good and holy Lent.
Join Father Kirby for Holy Lent, a series of daily reflections throughout the Lenten season. Follow Father Jeffrey Kirby on Twitter: @fatherkirby