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The season of Lent is a special period of the liturgical year when the Christian people have the opportunity to prepare themselves for a special homecoming, their return to a closer relationship with the Lord. The traditional forty days of Lent prepare us for the most important events in the history of Christendom, the paschal mystery -- the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is a time to be reconciled with ourselves, others, and God.
Like all homecomings, the great events of Holy Week necessitate preparation on our part. The Church has traditionally focused on three special actions -- fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. We can prepare ourselves for the renewal of our relationship with God by making the conscious decision to eat less and to avoid certain things that we might especially like. One might also consider abstaining from some habitual pleasure that is harmful to us, such as drinking or smoking, during this holy season of homecoming preparation. We can also prepare by greater devotion to prayer. This may manifest itself through a daily reading and reflection upon the scriptures, periodic visits to our local parish church, gathering with family and friends and sharing prayer, or an extension or new innovation in our daily personal prayer. Lent is also a time when our thoughts may turn to those less privileged than ourselves. The season provides the opportunity to move beyond what we normally do and reach out in a special way to those who may need us. This can manifest itself in visits to those who are sick, at home, in hospitals, or in nursing homes, volunteering time at a soup kitchen or other social service agency that provides direct service to the poor, or donating our time and/or expertise to assist an individual or a group. We should make every effort to share not simply from our excess, but rather from our own needs. In this way, we are truly in solidarity with those whom we wish to assist. Our sacrifice makes our preparation more meaningful, personal, and challenging.
In our society, people are constantly in a state of preparation. In our youth we prepare through education to enter the adult life and the working community. As adults we are constantly preparing, whether it is for a change of jobs, geographic location, or state in life. Many of the places we wish to go, especially the many homecomings of our life, necessitate that we make the time to prepare adequately. If we enter upon some endeavor or project without the proper preparation, the results will not be what we expect. We may not fail completely, but we will be dissatisfied with ourselves and our efforts. Thus, we must do what is necessary to assure that we are prepared so that the results we seek will be a reality.
Lent asks a lot of the Christian people, but if we seek to follow in the footsteps of the crucified we cannot expect our burden to be any lighter than that which Christ carried. We cannot arrive at the Resurrection, the great celebration of Jesus' triumph over the grave, without first passing through the Good Friday experience. The message of the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures, the need to get straight with God and return to the Lord, was not an easy one for the people to digest. The challenges of God are often not easy.
We must, however, see the great merit in seeking the road less traveled, the path that Jesus walked and in the process brought the possibility of eternal life to all who believe. The famous British essayist and novelist, Gilbert Keith (G.K.) Chesterton, expressed the Christian challenge so aptly: "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried." The cross was an instrument of torture and pain, but it was the vehicle by which salvation came to the world. Thus, the Christian people must not run or hide from the cross, but rather it must, in a paradoxical way, be embraced. We remember Jesus' challenge in the Gospels, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 16:24-25). Jesus did not walk to Calvary in handcuffs and leg irons; he went voluntarily. If we are to follow him, then we must be willing participants in his life, passion, and death.
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of a special journey that assists us in obtaining a more complete and closer relationship with God; it is the period of preparation for our annual homecoming. Like all homecomings, our journey to Holy Week requires concerted and active preparation; we simply will never arrive at our destination with the proper attitude and vigor if we do little or nothing to prepare ourselves for the great events we anticipate. The prophet Joel proclaimed a clear and challenging message to the Hebrews of their need to get right with God in order to remove the Lord's wrath as manifest through a plague of locusts. We must hear a similar challenge in our need to prepare for the paschal mystery. Let us be inspired by the prophet who alerted the people to their need to prepare and do similarly for the great events of our faith. Along the road we will draw closer to God and be that much better prepared for our ultimate goal and God's great gift to us -- eternal life.