Reflections on Lent

Reflections on Lent

Photo Credit: Kamil Szumotalski

Embracing the paradox of the cross in our Lenten observance 

Para Babuharan, Logos Editor 

When I had journeyed half of our life’s way, 

I found myself within a shadowed forest, 

for I had lost the path that does not stray. 

In these opening lines of the Divine Comedy, Dante tells of his being astray from the path of truth and goodness. It is Maundy Thursday — surely, he has not had a very fruitful Lent. Dante encounters three beasts in the dark wood; they represent the vices which keep him spiritually torpid and on the path to eternal despair. Unable to overcome them, he retreats to lower ground. At that very moment, Dante sees a sign of divine mercy. “Have mercy on me,” he cries, and he is taken on his journey. 

That cry, “Miserere,” captures the essence of the Christian observance of Lent. It is the necessary preparation before we cry out once more in paschal jubilation, “Alleluia.” 

Lent is the sacred season of penitential preparation for Easter, the celebration of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Its forty-day duration parallels Christ’s forty-day fast in the wilderness after his baptism, as well as the Israelites’ forty-year sojourn in the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt. Lent culminates in Holy Week, during which the crucial events of salvation history are memorialized in dramatic fashion. 

The three pillars of Lenten observance are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. It is popular among modern Catholics to make the equivalent of New Year’s resolutions during this time, in hopes of losing bad habits and gaining good ones. 

As much as we want to be free of unwanted attachments when we greet the risen Christ, there is always the possibility of falling into old temptations — as the Israelites did, even after reaching the Promised Land — or yielding to new temptations — like pride. 

Christianity stands apart from ancient and modern traditions of asceticism and self-improvement in its recognition that the way up is down. Scripture and the entire Christian spiritual tradition are saturated with the paradox that “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” 

That is the mystery of Good Friday: the culmination of the all-powerful God’s self-emptying love for man whom he created. And Holy Saturday: God’s descent into the depths of God-forsakenness, to raise up fallen man who was unable to raise himself up. 

This Lent, rather than despairing of our vices or exulting in our virtues, let us be truthful about who we are and who God is. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “The humility of Jesus is the surmounting of our pride; by his abasement he lifts us up. Let us allow him to lift us up. Let us strip away our sense of self-sufficiency, our false illusions of independence, and learn from him, the One who humbled himself, to discover our true greatness by bending low before God and before our downtrodden brothers and sisters.”