Three Simple Questions on the Threshold of Lent

Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, falls on March 5 this year. Lived well, Lent can convert the heart and transform a person’s life. That’s the whole point of the season – to ready us for the miracle of Easter. But self-examination, repentance and reconciliation are rarely painless; they can sound a lot easier in theory than they are in practice.

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So as we start this year’s Lenten journey, a few simple questions and answers might help us on our way:

Reconciliation sounds great as an idea, but how do you reconcile with someone who’s bitterly hurt you and won’t even acknowledge that he or she has done wrong? Isn’t forgiveness a two-way street?

Forgiving those who hurt us is our business. Making our forgiveness contingent on the other person’s admission of guilt is just another way of demanding justice and insisting on our «rights.» That’s a subtle form of pride. Jesus forgave his murderers even as they mocked him on the cross. His forgiveness was a free gift, no strings attached. We can’t follow him unless we do the same.

However, you’re right that when a breach exists between two people, it can’t be healed unless both sincerely want it healed. Even then, someone or something has to provide a means of bringing them back together. That’s God’s role. Reconciliation is the work of God. Seeking reconciliation is our work. We need to do whatever we can to make peace with others, and then leave the rest in the hands of God.

But if justice is a good thing, why would I simply walk away from it when it comes to my own needs?

You shouldn’t. It’s always reasonable to insist on being treated fairly and honestly, and we’re obliged to treat others in the same way. Unfortunately, you and I and everyone else are also sinners – which means that, inevitably, we’ll treat others unjustly and be treated unjustly ourselves. As a result, life can very quickly become a web of angry claims and counter-claims against each other, many of them just, and most of them unresolvable.

The only way to cut our way out of this tangle is to forgive. Forgiveness is an act of freedom. It creates new possibilities. It frees us from the burden of our own wounded selfishness, and it releases others to forgive and get free as well. Handing our claims over to God unburdens us of a huge weight – a weight which will cripple us, no matter how legitimate our complaints, if we carry it too long.

We always work more effectively for justice on behalf of others. When it comes to our own personal situation, the self always gets in the way and clouds our judgment. The great paradox of God’s plan is that we only achieve justice through the practice of mercy. Mercy changes both the giver and the receiver. It softens the hardened heart. That’s why Scripture so often likens mercy to water in a desert: It brings new life. It encourages conversion and love, which breed acts of justice, which builds peace. So if you want justice for yourself and for others,forgive. Put mercy first. Justice will follow.

Why do I need to indict myself to get ready for Easter? Isn’t Easter the season of new life? Where’s the joy in spending Lent as the prosecutor at my own trial?

We owe ourselves exactly the same mercy we owe to others. Vilifying ourselves isn’t the point of Lent. Purifying our hearts is. Lent is the time when we learn the language of repentance and forgiveness by disciplining our mind, our spirit and our appetites, so that nothing prevents us from hearing God’s voice and seeking him out. The joy in Lent comes from our confidence in the resurrection of a Savior who will deliver us from sin and restore us to life.

Of course, unless we understand our own sinfulness, unless we understand the urgency of repentance and reconciliation, the Cross makes no sense; the Resurrection makes no sense. Easter joy is the joy of deliverance and new life. If we don’t believe in our bones that we really do desperately need these things, Easter is just another excuse for a holiday sale; and the Sacrament of Penance, and our fasting and almsgiving, are a waste of time.

But in the silence of our own hearts, if we’re honest, we know we hunger for something more than our own selfishness and mistakes. We were made for glory, and we’re empty of that glory until God fills us with his presence. All things are made new in the victory of Jesus Christ – even sinners like you and me. The blood of the Cross washes away death. It purifies us as vessels for God’s new life. The Resurrection fills us with God’s own life.

Lent is an opportunity and a grace, not a burden. May we use the weeks of Lent this year to clean and ready our hearts so we can receive Jesus Christ this Easter, and share his life throughout 2014.

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Charles J. Chaput

Archbishop of Philadelphia

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