Lent is a journey of continual renewal into the paschal mystery of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In this special time of the year it is important that we do not go about it alone but walk this journey in the company of others who are open to God’s Spirit. Certainly Pope Francis is one of these people.
For the Argentinian Pope, Lent is a time wherein we receive God’s love which is being lavished upon us by Him. In this year’s Lenten Message, that of 2021, the Holy Father writes: “In our Lenten journey towards Easter, let us remember the One who “humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). During this season of conversion, let us renew our faith, draw from the ‘living water’ of hope, and receive with open hearts the love of God, who makes us brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Moreover, Lent is a time in which we discover where our life is heading to. In his homily of March 6, 2019, Pope Bergoglio said: “Because in life’s journey, as in every journey, what really matters is not to lose sight of the goal. If what interests us as we travel, however, is looking at the scenery or stopping to eat, we will not get far. We should ask ourselves: On the journey of life, do I seek the way forward? Or am I satisfied with living in the moment and thinking only of feeling good, solving some problems and having fun? What is the path? Is it the search for health, which many today say comes first but which eventually passes? Could it be possessions and wellbeing? But we are not in the world for this. Return to me, says the Lord. To me. The Lord is the goal of our journey in this world. The direction must lead to him.”
By being aware of where our life is directing at we are also experiencing Lent as being a time of renewal. In his Lenten Message of 2014 Pope Francis said: “Lent is a time of renewal for the whole Church, for each community and every believer. Above all it is a ‘time of grace’ (2 Cor 6:2). God does not ask of us anything that he himself has not first given us. ‘We love because he first has loved us’ (1 Jn 4:19).”
The Lenten grace we are talking about is one which involves recovery. In his homily for Ash Wednesday of February 14, 2016, the Holy Father said: “Lent is a good time to recover the joy and hope that make us feel like beloved sons and daughters of the Father. The Father who waits for us in order to cast off our garments of exhaustion, of apathy, of mistrust, and so clothe us with the dignity which only a true father or mother knows how to give their children, with the garments born of tenderness and love.”
Another kind of Lenten grace is that of being liberated and getting healed. In his homily on March 6, 2019, the Holy Father said: “Lent is the time of grace that liberates the heart from vanity. It is a time of healing from addictions that seduce us. It is a time to fix our gaze on what abides.” The liberation and healing which Lent gives is tantamount to conversion. In his Lenten message of the same year the Pope said: “All creation is called, with us, to go forth “from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom 8:21). Lent is a sacramental sign of this conversion. It invites Christians to embody the paschal mystery more deeply and concretely in their personal, family and social lives, above all by fasting, prayer and almsgiving.”
Obviously, conversion implies saying no to sin. In his homily of March 1, 2017, he observed: “No to the spiritual asphyxia born of the pollution caused by indifference, by thinking that other people’s lives are not my concern, and by every attempt to trivialize life, especially the lives of those whose flesh is burdened by so much superficiality. Lent means saying no to the toxic pollution of empty and meaningless words, of harsh and hasty criticism, of simplistic analyses that fail to grasp the complexity of problems, especially the problems of those who suffer the most. Lent is the time to say no to the asphyxia of a prayer that soothes our conscience, of an almsgiving that leaves us self-satisfied, of a fasting that makes us feel good.
Lent is the time to say no to the asphyxia born of relationships that exclude, that try to find God while avoiding the wounds of Christ present in the wounds of his brothers and sisters: in a word, all those forms of spirituality that reduce the faith to a ghetto culture, a culture of exclusion.”
In his quest for delving deeper into the Lenten spirit, Pope Francis talks about what really makes a good Lenten fast. This he does in a homily which he delivered on March 5 2014. “Fasting makes sense if it questions our security, and if it also leads to some benefit for others, if it helps us to cultivate the style of the Good Samaritan, who bends down to his brother in need and takes care of him. Fasting involves choosing a sober lifestyle; a way of life that does not waste, a way of life that does not ‘throw away’. Fasting helps us to attune our hearts to the essential and to sharing.”
Being inspired by Jesus’ cry which we find in the Lukan Gospel, I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled! (Luke 12:49) Pope Francis highlights in his teaching that Lent is not really about ash but, and more so, about fire. In his homily of March 6, 2019, he said: “Lent is for rediscovering that we are created for the inextinguishable flame, not for ashes that immediately disappear; for God, not for the world; for the eternity of heaven, not for earthly deceit; for the freedom of the children of God, not for slavery to things. We should ask ourselves today: Where do I stand? Do I live for fire or for ash?”
Fire consumes and makes into ashes what it consumes. Hence, what if we are consumed by God’s Holy Spirit in order that we become dust in the loving hands of God? On this point Pope Francis said in his homily of March 1, 2017: “Lent is a path: it leads to the triumph of mercy over all that would crush us or reduce us to something unworthy of our dignity as God’s children. Lent is the road leading from slavery to freedom, from suffering to joy, from death to life. The mark of the ashes with which we set out reminds us of our origin: we were taken from the earth, we are made of dust. True, yet we are dust in the loving hands of God, who has breathed his spirit of life upon each one of us, and still wants to do so.”
In this Lenten tapestry, weaved by the Holy Spirit through Pope Francis, we learn that Lent is a time of receiving God’s love, rediscovering our life direction, a time of renewal and recovery, a time of liberation and healing, a time of conversion by saying no to sin, showing mercy, being enkindled by God’s fire until we become dust in his loving hands to use us as He wills. Blessed are we if we let the Spirit work His way in our lives!