February 21, 2012

MISSION MATTERS: Repent for Lent

Lenten Cross

By Fr. Paul Stark, S.J.
Vice President for Mission and Ministry

Today is Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Day, Pancake Tuesday, Fat Tuesday, Carnival season and Mardi Gras, the last blast before the long Lent. We anticipate tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, will be an interesting and even profound day, to be sure. Catholics the world over, and increasingly, interestingly enough, other Christians and even non-Christians, and denominations that have historically ignored Lent, queue up to receive ashes on their foreheads, as Christianity enters into this profound season of penance and conversion. And it's not even a holy day of obligation. What draws us to do this? What, indeed.

Some say we begin to realize, at this time of year, with the excesses of Fat Tuesday, an innate, soul-deep need to become different, to repent, to relent, to be more or better than we are or maybe have been, to make a change in our lives. We certainly don't stand in line to receive a large or small or precise or blurred cross of various sizes just to have something to do. No, we stand in line to represent, many say, good will, a developing desire to do good, to avoid evil, to be better, to deepen our faith. We stand in line to receive an outer sign of an inner desire. We stand in line to commit, one way or another, to 40-plus days of deepening our faith. Some say we even realize that we have much for which we need to repent, and are grateful, in some small or large way, for the opportunity--even the desire--to begin to do just that.

At this time of year, in addition to a dirty forehead, we also talk at some length about what we'll give up, sharing the information with our friends, measuring against them the seriousness of our Lenten practices by the rigor of all we will give up--chocolate, smoking, etc, patting ourselves on the back for our rigor. But that's really not the real point of Lent. That sort of trivial pursuit really detracts and distracts from our real purpose. It might be a nice diversion, and even worthwhile, in the long run, but it cannot substitute for the real purpose we commit to Lent in the first place.

Our desires to eat less, to lose weight, to stop chewing our fingernails, and any number of other personal things we'll try to give up, often won't last, won't remain; only the inner commitment, the internal conviction, the innate control to direct our lives to be different will sustain us. The exterior reflects, and results from, the interior.

Whatever you call today, tomorrow is the real deal. Christians offer Lent as preparation-through prayer, repentance, almsgiving and self-denial-for the annual commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus, during Holy Week, and culminating in Easter. While clearly a Christian preparation, Lent and Ash Wednesday help us all put into action, in a socially acceptable and even communal way, a call to be and do and become more.

Have a blessed Lent!

Higher purpose. Greater good.
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