Many of us have experienced so many Lents that it might be hard to count them. I look out in the congregation today and I realize that some of you could probably count them up in decades, one or two. For myself and maybe some of you, a score, 20 years in a set might work a little better. We’ve had so many Lents. Many of us almost know these readings by heart, hearing them year after year. We know what Lent is for. We know that it’s about preparing ourselves to celebrate the Passover feast days — Holy Week — Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, the Easter Octave. To join with the catechumens so that we, like them, will be able to celebrate the Lord’s Passover with great joy. We know that we remember in these days our own mortality. Remember that you are dust and unto dust you will return.
We know that this is a time for repentance. As St. Paul says, now is the acceptable time. A time to be reconciled with God, to put aside our sins and be renewed in our relationship with him and, because of that renewal, to be renewed in our bonds with one another. Repent and believe you are dust. These words, these summons, are made powerfully present, visible by the Sign of the Cross in ashes on our foreheads. We’re all accustomed to it.
But, each Lent is a fresh grace, a new grace. There is no entropy in the Kingdom of God. Grace is always growing stronger and newer. And as I have considered that truth, it occurred to me that the resignation of our Holy Father on Monday provides a lens, a portal through which we can look in order to freshly, newly, with youthful vigor, even if this is our 70th Lent, with youthful vigor return to accept the grace of these holy 40 days.
And so the reflection I offer today is about considering the meaning of this day and the 40 Days of Lent through the lens of the Holy Father’s resignation. He said a lot of interesting — important I should say — things in those few paragraphs. He talked about why he’s doing this and when it will take effect. But perhaps to my mind these are the words that are most important: “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God…” He examined his conscience before God. “I have come to the certainty that my strengths due to advanced age are no longer suited for my ministry.” Let us think a moment about the foundational convictions that are at the basis of this decision. As the Holy Father speaks about acting according to his conscience prayerfully formed.
Two I would offer… First, that earthly life and all the goods of this world are transitory. Things pass. He by his resignation is acknowledging that the vigor of his own life has passed and he is preparing for death. Secondly, that we all have to give an accounting to God because at the end of life we will be judged for our stewardship of how we have spent the days of our life. And so the Holy Father’s resignation is a manifestation of his own conscience, a manifestation of the essence of what conscience is — that we are all obliged, as he is obliged, to strive for true good beyond mere appearance. We are all obliged to strive for the highest goods, to strive to be like Christ Jesus, to strive to serve God and give ourselves back to God as an act of thanksgiving for his gift to us, and that we are all, as the Holy Father is answerable, all answerable to God for this striving.
To be true to our conscience is ultimately not simply to be true to myself but it is to be true to who God is, what God asks. And that’s what he has shown us by his resignation. That’s what he witnesses to by saying and clearly manifesting that what he has done is the result of an examination of his conscience in the presence of the Lord Jesus. And so the message to us is that this is not simply one more event in the twenty-four/seven cycle of things that are presented to us to keep us interested. But what we take from the resignation is an example of how a disciple follows Jesus and walks in his way. And what is offered then to me, I think, and to you, is a renewal of fresh seriousness about Lent — the kind of seriousness about his life that the Pope showed in making this decision in conscience. A seriousness of realizing that the true measure of my life and your life is living the Passover of Jesus Christ. Dying to self in order to live with Jesus for the Father.
That then explains the agenda that we take up every Lent. The agenda of mortification and fasting. The agenda items of works of love, works of mercy, and the agenda item of prayer. We do fasting, we give things up, we live we experience mortification because we are already now rehearsing our dying, that day when we definitively will have to bid goodbye to all the good things that this world offers us. We are witnessing to the truth that our deepest of motivations in life are about eternal goods – hope for life in Jesus Christ.
By our mortification we live again the truth that it is for the sake of eternal goods and God’s judgment that we are living out our lives. The works of charity, mercy, that we take up, we engage in these in order to give witness to what are truly the good things of this world – care for one another, service of our neighbor, attentiveness to those who are at the margins of our lives, bringing peace into a world fractured by contention. We engage in the works of mercy so that when we stand before God in judgment we will have something to show for our lives and to be evaluated by his measure, which is the measure of love.
And our prayer, our intensified prayer, is first of all an expression of the truth that we live in conscience before God for the love of Jesus Christ. This is why we keep Lent, not as an exercise in stoic self-improvement, but for the love of Jesus. And it is also an indication of our awareness that without the strength of Jesus Christ we could not live according to conscience in the light of the law of love.
In the Holy Eucharist, in the Eucharist that we celebrate at this hour, the Passover of Jesus Christ is made present and so this made present here is the very act of Jesus as he lived with a good conscience in the presence of his Father, even at the hour of his death. That’s always the case. Today it is for us to join our own resolution to purify our consciences of whatever we have done wrong and to strengthen our consciences in obeying the law of God, and to join that resolve with the resolve, the intention, the heart, the mind, of Jesus Christ made present, and to receive in Holy Communion the strength of Jesus Christ with which Jesus Christ endured his cross in good conscience. Doing the right no matter the cost to receive that same strength so that we as disciples of Jesus, like our Holy Father the Pope who is our leader in following Jesus, so that we too in good conscience can do the will of God as we understand it, to do the will of God no matter what the cost because this is our vocation, this is the way we imitate the Lord Jesus as the Pope has, doing what he has been called to do in the light of the Holy Spirit.
I hope you all have a very blessed Lent. Let us remember to hold one another in prayer every day wherever we might be, tomorrow or ten days from now or on the day after Palm Sunday. We started this together and let us pray for one another that we finish together. Always giving God glory in supporting one another as we walk in the way of conscience.