Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, March 6. The column this week is Bishop Cunningham’s Lenten message to all the faithful.
March 6, 2019
“God’s love is everlasting!” (Ps 136)
My Dear Friends in Christ,
As I begin this letter, the sun is shining in a cloudless sky. The days are longer. The snow is melting. If the weather predictions are correct, however, we are in for some more windy, blustery, and cold days. Nevertheless, spring is on the way. In these waning winter days, we begin the season of Lent, the Church’s holy spring. The word “Lent” comes from the Old English word for “spring.” It is related also to words that mean “long,” referring to “the lengthening days” as the earth moves from the winter solstice toward the spring equinox.
“Return to me with your whole heart . . . rend your hearts, not your garments . . . be reconciled to God.” These familiar words from the first and second reading at Mass on Ash Wednesday focus our attention on the personal need for conversion. Conversion or Metanoia is a transforming change of heart evidenced by turning away from sin and turning more fully toward Jesus.
The Gospel for Ash Wednesday proclaims the three well-known practices that set the tone for Lent and point out the path of repentance and conversion: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
The entire Lenten season should be a time of closer attention to prayer. How often we find Jesus at prayer in the Gospels. He took time to be with His Father. We too need to take time to pray, to raise our minds and hearts in adoration, contrition, gratitude, and supplication. We need to withdraw from the demands of daily life and listen to the still, small voice of God.
Fasting is a time-honored practice during Lent. Accompanied by prayer, fasting involves some form of self-denial that strengthens our efforts to be faithful disciples of the Lord. While we often associate fasting with abstaining from food, it also includes fasting from sinful habits and selfish inclinations. “God does not want pointless fasting. You must offer a different kind of fasting which is this: do nothing wicked in your life, but serve the Lord with a pure heart; obey his commandments; allow no evil desire to enter your heart and trust in God” (Hermas, The Shepherd, V).
Almsgiving directs our attention to others and our responsibility to give what we can to help those in need. It is not limited to the material action whereby we increase our charitable donations. Speaking about the duty of almsgiving St. Augustine notes, “There is a further work of mercy in which one takes nothing from one’s store or purse, but expels from the heart that which it is more harmful to keep than to give away. I am referring to the anger one stores up in one’s heart against one’s brother.”
The season of Lent provides us with the opportunity to examine our lives and, where necessary, renew our commitment to the Gospel and the grace of our Baptism. We cannot stop, however, at the examination of our lives and the practices to which it calls us. Lent is time to renew and rediscover the love and mercy of God. Sin and weakness are not the primary themes of Lent. No, the primary message of Lent is God’s love and mercy. “God loved the world so much that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).
During this holy season, “Let us not lose sight of Jesus, who leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection: for the sake of the joy which was still in the future, he endured the cross . . . and has taken his place at the right of God’s throne” (Hb 12:2).
Lent is about God’s everlasting love and the graces He gives us to deepen our relationship with Him and with others. When we have completed our Lenten practices, we will discover at Easter that the Lord of Lent has done more for us than we have done for Him.
We make this Lenten journey not as isolated individuals but as companions in faith called to build up the Body of Christ. Be assured of my prayers for a grace filled Lent. Please pray for me.
Devotedly Yours in Christ,
Most Reverend Bishop
Robert J. Cunningham
Bishop of Syracuse