My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
As I write this, my mother’s health is failing and she in is in hospice care in her nursing home. I appreciate the many messages I have received with assurances of prayers. Certainly prayers are crucial at a time like this when a loved one is facing the transition from this life to the next. My six brothers, two sisters, and their children and grandchildren are very grateful.
This time of sorrow coincides with the beginning of Lent, so naturally my thoughts are very much on the Lenten themes of the journey from death to life. It is the good news of our faith that the life of Jesus did not end with his death on the cross but continues thanks to the glory of his resurrection. The promise of our faith is that the hope of eternal life is extended to us as well. We do well to reflect on these themes throughout the weeks of Lent. In that regard, may I suggest reading or re-reading part three of my pastoral letter, The Art of Living and Dying in God’s Grace, available on our diocesan website at www.dio.org/bishop/pastoral-letters.html.
Many people make it part of their Lenten practices to go to Mass every day, not just on Sundays. Those who go to daily Mass may notice a shift in focus that takes place in the Scripture readings about halfway through Lent.
Although we refer to the season of Lent as consisting of 40 days, it is actually divided into two parts. The weekday Mass readings for the first part of Lent, from Ash Wednesday until Saturday of the third week of Lent, which are taken from the Old Testament and the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, emphasize the call to conversion, renewing our relationship with God, and growing in holiness through prayer, fasting and almsgiving. We are also called to grow in love of neighbor through mutual forgiveness.
The weekday Mass readings for the second part of Lent, from Monday of the fourth week of Lent, taken from the Gospel of John, present the mystery of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who gives eternal life to all who believe in him through his suffering, death and resurrection.
The connection between these two parts of Lent is suggested by the Prayer over the People given before the final blessing and dismissal on Ash Wednesday, which says, “Pour out a spirit of compunction, O God, on those who bow before your majesty, and by your mercy may they merit the rewards you promise to those who do penance.” The word “compunction” does not appear frequently in the prayers of the Roman Missal, but it does suggest a link that connects the two parts of Lent.
The root of the word “compunction” comes from the verb, “to puncture.” We are called first to pierce the bubble of our inflated egos and then fill our emptied and purified souls with the love of Jesus Christ. The late Mark Searle, who taught at the University of Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, wrote in his reflections on The Spirit of Lent that the purpose of our Lenten penance “is not to confirm us in our virtue but to bring home to us our radical need of salvation.” As we become more aware of the demands of discipleship and come to recognize our shortcomings, we realize our need for salvation, which we find only in Jesus Christ, our Savior.
We can also see this dynamic of salvation in the Old Testament accounts of the exodus of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. As Moses led the people from slavery into the freedom of the promised land, Jesus leads us from being slaves of sin to the freedom of the sons and daughters of God, who will live forever in the grace of his heavenly kingdom. This is the fulfilment of all our hopes and dreams. This new life that we will celebrate at Easter is the culmination of God’s plan of salvation for us. This is what makes Lent worthwhile.
May God give us this grace. Amen.