When I was a child, the Sisters of the Presentation taught us in school that the Lenten Season was a time of sacrifice. So we were encouraged to make a Lenten resolution, sacrificing this or that, for the love of God. The connection between sacrifice and love of God was not so clear. But if the sisters said that sacrifice would be pleasing to God, I gamely took on the sacrifice. Why not make God happy? If I would give up candy or watching my favorite TV show for the love of God, my mother would give up smoking. In religion class and in Church, we were also told to give up sin. I had many of those. So I gave them up as well. Just like my Mom gave up smoking, more or less. I have long since realized that making God happy by my sacrifices is presumptuous. And giving up sin more than difficult.
Childhood has passed, but the Lenten Season has not. On Ash Wednesday, we priests are allowed to opt among different formulae when imposing ashes on the faithful. When I was a kid, I remembered being awed, and a little frightened, by the priest’s words, “Remember man that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return!” I have opted for this formula sometimes. It jars the penitent with the transience of human life, recalls his or her mortality, conjures images of eternal reward or eternal damnation that depends on things done or not done within this life. It is meant to encourage the Christian to repent from his or her sins, and recall the Gospel. But it can be rather misleading. Telling man alone that he is but dust and mortal is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s why on Ash Wednesday, I prefer to use the formula, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” It is less dramatic than, “Hey, you’re nothing but dust. And you’re going to die!” But it is more profound. More like, “Hey, now, come back from your unhappiness to God. God loves you.”
God is love (1 Jn. 4:16) We forget: even before our personal consciousness of ourselves, either as a naïve child or a mature adult, God has loved us first (cf. 1 Jn. 4:19). Even before sin, God was loving us first.
In the Lenten season, that has to be the first order of the day. Not the vanity of the pain upon fasting (and the joy of losing all those extra pounds!) nor the smug satisfaction that comes with the Pharisee’s declaration, “Thank God I’m not like the rest of men!” (Lk. 18:12), but the return to a God of love. In Lent, we must open ourselves to experience God’s love.
How? That will be different in each person’s life. For God works mysteriously in each. As he does, we are invited freely to experience this God of love. Where life has become bland and boring, God invites us to mystery. Where life has become confusing and noisy, God invites us to silence. Where life has become oppressive and suffocating, God invites us to freedom. Where life has become sinful and immoral, God invites us to forgiveness. And his embrace.
When I was a child, the catechism illustrated God the Father as an Old Man in the Clouds. As an adult, we know all images of God contain something true, but also something false. The Old Man in the Sky may convey something of divine Wisdom and venerability, but God the Father never became an old man. So it is with other images of God. I long lived with an image of God as a punishing, vengeful, fearsome God. In truth, he is a God of Justice. But in truth, he is also a God of Compassion. The truth an image of God is overtaken by its falsity, as its falsity is overcome in truth. God is Law, Eternal Law. But God is also Mercy. God is Reason, but he is also Freedom. God is Nature, but he is also spontaneous Creativity. God is Love – divine, transcendent, eternal – but God is love – human, urgent, passionate, present.
Reason argues for the existence of God. But only God reveals himself. He does so in a startling manner, exploding categories of human reason. The Father reveals himself, we believe, in Jesus; we believe and live in him in God’s Spirit. It is Jesus who taught us to love God foremost, and our neighbor as ourselves. It is Jesus who taught us not to judge. It is Jesus whose angriest words were for the Scribes and Pharisees, who in their self-righteous fidelity to the law heaped heavy burdens on people struggling to reach God. It is Jesus who insisted on the Kingdom of God, not the terrorizing reign of laws and rules and prescriptions. It is Jesus who insisted that those who followed him should be palpably those who love one another. It is Jesus who preposterously revealed the Father’s love for us by freely accepting crucifixion and death on a Cross.
In Lent, it is not a good idea then just to beat ourselves on the breast and wallow in churned-up guilt for all the sins we have committed. In truth, we do not worship abstract laws and prescriptions, whether natural or positive; religion is not just do’s and don’ts. Christian morality can never be reduced to mere conformity to these, nor does God condemn a person to hell just for breaking a prescription. Laws and prescriptions do not know me, understand me, cherish me, feel for me, hope in me, uplift me. They do not know my current economic distress, the communication problem I am having with my spouse, the compelling need I have to provide well for my children, the deep loneliness I feel even in the midst of power and adulation, the dizzying attraction I feel to this new person in my life, the guilt I feel for my many shortcomings. God does. God knows my struggle. He understands. He liberates, comforts and consoles beyond the ability of the moralists to bind and the penchant of the Pharisees to condemn. He loves me.
Ignatius of Loyola knew: God loved us first. It is to his love that we must return. That is the beginning, the foundation. It is only in his love, that we gain the Christian perspective to consider our sins. We turn away from them, not in morbid self-flagellation, but through God’s love and forgiving embrace.