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Imitate Jesus this Lent by paying attention to God's word

Originally Appeared in : 9906-3/14/19

On the surface, we Catholics may seem to contradict ourselves. On the one hand, we believe that, created in God’s image, all people are good and have inherent value. On the other hand, we are reminded on Ash Wednesday and throughout Lent that we are dust. Lent reminds us of our mortality, our sinfulness, and our need to repent. 

 

In reality, however, these two perspectives are complementary. We are made in God’s image and likeness, yet in our current condition, we fall short of becoming the people God created us to be. The visible sign of ashes on our forehead reminds us and our brothers and sisters that we are on a journey toward holiness. All of us wear ashes. None of us is exempt from the frailty of our human condition. But why would ashes be necessary if we didn’t aspire to something more? We see in our poverty the richness of grace for which we are destined. 

 

Lent is the pilgrim’s way, the path to our resurrection. So how can we best observe Lent? Each pilgrim would discern the process he or she finds most appropriate. But if there’s one path to avoid, it is the path of sameness. We are creatures of habit, and we find comfort in sameness. But Lent is not a time for falling back on old ways. Giving up the same indulgence for Lent year after year is unlikely to change us at our core, to prompt us to repent. 

 

Lent is not a time of self-improvement in the sense our culture encourages. If our Lenten observance is intended only to make us better, we are selling Lent short. Rather than select for ourselves how we observe Lent, we should ask God to provide us with the template. One template is provided us in the Gospel we proclaim on the first Sunday of Lent. 

 

The story of Jesus spending 40 days in the desert and being tempted by the devil can seem almost cartoonish in its images. One can easily conjure up the image of a horned character whispering in Jesus’ ear, or speaking to Jesus as a snake oil salesman might. The contrast between Jesus and Satan is as stark as the difference between good and evil. In this story, nuance may elude us.

 

What we may fail to notice, however, is that the three times Jesus responds to Satan’s temptations, Jesus replies with words from Scripture. Caught up in the story line, we may overlook that Jesus invokes God’s word to resist temptation. After hearing God’s word from Jesus the third time, Satan departs from him. 

 

And here’s how our tendency to rely on sameness becomes problematic. We can become so accustomed to hearing the Word of God at Mass that we may not realize its power. Over time, during the Celebration of the Eucharist we become habituated to the Liturgy of the Word at the risk that some may view it as something to be sat through before we can receive communion. Sadly, many Catholics forget that we encounter Jesus in the Word, and that encounter has the power to change us, if we allow it to.

 

Thus, a powerful template for how to celebrate Lent would be to immerse ourselves in God’s Word. We don’t necessarily have to add Scripture to our lives; we can start paying attention to it in ways we may not have ordinarily in the past. Just as we often fail to listen closely to our loved ones and must remind ourselves to pay better attention, so should we prompt ourselves to be more attentive to God’s Word. 

 

By familiarizing ourselves with the readings in advance of the Mass, we can be more aware of their power to influence our lives. By meditating on the Sunday readings, contemplating scriptural images, or following the ancient practice of Lectio Divina, we open our hearts and minds to the possibility of being transformed. 

 

If we see our 40 days of Lent as a chance to become more like Jesus, we know that Jesus was not only the source of Scripture but a devout Jew who began his public ministry reading from the Prophet Isaiah, words that resound to us. 

 

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion —-
to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.” (Isaiah 61: 1-3)

 

What better way to begin Lent than to recognize that, as anointed followers of Jesus, we are to do the same. Meditating on these words alone could profoundly change us. 

 

St. Bernard of Clairvaux sums up what strikes me as perfect Lenten spiritual practice: “If you observe anything evil within yourself, correct it; if something good, preserve it; if something beautiful, foster it; if something sound, maintain it; if sickly, heal it; Read unwaveringly the precepts of the Lord and, sufficiently instructed by them, you will know what to avoid and what to pursue.” 

 

Mary Hood Hart is a freelance writer and educator living in Pittsboro, NC. She can be reached at maryhoodhart@gmail.com

 

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