Next Wednesday begins Lent. I love Ash Wednesday! People come to Mass in large numbers and receive a public sign of their faith – the sign of the cross traced on the forehead with ashes. It is a smudge that most people understand or at least ask about. The ashes on our forehead call for the interior conversion from sin and proclaim an exterior proclamation that as Catholics we need God and desire conversion.
This act of humility also is accompanied each year by a Lenten message from the Holy Father. Pope Francis’s message is a powerful one. He recalls just one verse of Sacred Scripture: Verse 9 from St. Paul’s 2nd Letter to the Corinthians, in which Paul states: “…for your sake he (Jesus Christ) became poor although he was rich, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” Consistent with his year-long call to humility and care for others, Pope Francis exhorts us to use the days of Lent to seek the poverty of Jesus and discover true riches.
And what is the poverty of Jesus that we are called to embrace? Jesus, who is the Eternal Word made flesh, empties Himself of His divinity to take on our humanity and becomes poor and humble so that we might uncover the riches that only He can bring. During Lent, we empty ourselves and make ourselves humble, generous, and detached from the things of this world through acts of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving so that we might become rich in God’s lavish love. We are invited to embrace this mystery of poverty and absence, so that we enter Holy Week and Easter as a time of conversion, when the absence of our Lord Jesus Christ makes us ready for the exultant joy at the Easter Vigil.
I found especially compelling Pope Francis’ contrast between this enriching sense of poverty and the destitution that needs eradication. He vividly describes three forms of destitution that can provide a fruitful meditation for our Lenten prayer and reflection.
First is the crippling material destitution that surrounds people born into a world without sufficient food, shelter, and medical care. My trip with Catholic Relief Services to the Philippines demonstrated this reality up close. So did my recent visit to the Sister Visitor Center in West Louisville, where the sisters and volunteers serve the material needs of countless individuals. Rice bowl collections and volunteer community service with Catholic Charities and other organization provide opportunities for us to do our part to help individuals lift themselves out of material destitution so they might discover and exercise their true dignity as children of God.
Pope Francis also describes moral and spiritual destitution. Who in this age is not touched by some form of addiction that brings about moral destitution! In a culture that tempts us with so many ways to turn in on ourselves, the season of Lent can provide a time, with God’s grace and the help of others, to lift ourselves from addictions – whether it be drugs and alcohol, too much television or shopping, or Internet pornography. The U.S. Bishops are developing a pastoral letter on pornography that is expected to be released in 2015. This project emerged from the growing prevalence of the addiction to pornography, especially on the Internet, that contributes to so much unhappiness in individuals and families.
Spiritual destitution is of the same cloth: it is a life without God. Sadly, so many are growing up without an understanding of God. At a recent meeting of bishops from Latin America and Canada, I heard about the plight of youth who seem to have no meaning in their lives. How different it was when I was growing up, and I felt the zeal of uncovering God’s plan for me and an eagerness to follow! There also is the phenomenon of “practical atheists,” people who go to Church on Sunday but then live the rest of their week as if God did not exist.
The antidote is to let God’s grace into our lives. Like sunlight shining in a darkened room, the grace of Lent can shine through. So now is the time to act.
Think about some Lenten resolutions. Going to Holy Eucharist daily or at least one extra day each week is an easy start. Taking part in the Rice Bowl program from Catholic Relief Services is another. There is even a new mobile app created by Rice Bowl makes it easy to choose specific sacrificial actions that will make your heart more generous and at the same time help people in need. (Go here for information about the program and the app.)
Lent means spring time! May this call to conversion be the spring in your life and in your step that leads you away from the destitution that drags us down and instead embraces the poverty of Christ that uplifts!