Shepherd's Voice

Living Lent more fully

As we begin our Lenten observances, Archbishop George J. Lucas reflects on the meaning of Lent and how we can deepen our experience of the season and receive God’s graces to grow in our faith.

Q. As we begin Lent, can you explain the significance of the ashes we are marked with on Ash Wednesday? What’s the power of a smudge of ash?

There’s some powerful draw to it, isn’t there? Happily, we see a lot of people who come to church on Ash Wednesday. Not just Catholics, but certainly within the Catholic community, people want to come and receive the ashes. I suppose, for a number of reasons, it is a little unusual because what we’re really doing is reminding ourselves that we’re going to die. It’s not something that we usually give a whole lot of thought to, but is really one of the truest things we can say about ourselves.

It opens up the Lenten season, of course, the marking with ashes on Ash Wednesday. And that season is really oriented toward Easter, toward the power of the Paschal Mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection. I don’t think we’d have the courage to look at the fact that we’re going to die if we didn’t have the confidence that we are redeemed. But we know that our redemption is a gift, a blessing, that we could give up. And so the Church, every year, invites us into the observance of Lent over these weeks so that we can in some ways, however unconsciously we do it, think about the kind of person I want to be when death comes and where I want to be in my relationship with God, who only wants good for me, who only wants my salvation.

 

Q. Recalling the words of Genesis 3:19 used during the administering of ashes, “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return,” how does that verse really put this awareness into people’s minds as something that they can really reflect upon?

We know that it’s not God’s will that we focus on death or say that death and being buried in the ground and going back to dust, that that’s the truest thing that we can say about ourselves.

The truest thing we can say is that God has created us lovingly in his own image and created us for life, not just life in this world but for eternal life. Even though we, in many ways, would be capable of giving up that eternal destiny through sin, God doesn’t give up on us. He’s given us the gift of his Son, who saves us, ultimately, from having the grave being our final destiny. And we look beyond the grave to eternal life in the risen Jesus.

So like everything else in our life of faith, we’re guided to be balanced about it, without giving up the truth that death awaits us. But our desire is, I think, the same as God’s, that we live forever. Sometimes God desires that for us more than we do for ourselves, because we get distracted by the other things on the way.

For most of us, death is down the road somewhere, we don’t know exactly where it is, when it’s coming, and so that’s why every year the church gives us the season of Lent, which is really an opportunity to focus on life and death, and eternal life. And to begin again to make the choices to show that we want God’s plan to be our plan, too.

 

Q. How do you think Lent can be that golden opportunity, so to speak, for evangelization? Obviously we’re called to evangelize throughout our entire lives. Can you explain how the Lenten season is especially a time of evangelization?

It’s a time to be evangelized ourselves, those of us who already have faith, but also to offer the invitation to life in the risen Christ to those around us. The most important thing we know, and the most important and unique event in all of human history, is the death of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, on the cross. Jesus laid down his life so that you and I, so that our brothers and sisters in the human family, can be saved from eternal death.

But what we also know, and an essential part of that truth goes along with that, is that Jesus is not dead now, that he’s alive, risen from the dead. We have the opportunity to encounter him in our life in the Church. And that really is at the heart of the Church’s evangelizing work. We want to be rooted in Jesus ourselves, not just know about him. It’s good to know about him, not just know what he’s asking us to do, what the Gospel demands of us. It’s good for us to know that and to embrace it. Jesus gives us, though, a personal relationship with him, because he’s alive. Through the power of the Holy Spirit we’re able to encounter him in the life of the Church. That’s an opportunity and experience that we want to offer to as many people as possible. He’s asking us to make that available to others.

So the central focus of Lent, being plunged into the death of Jesus, offering sorrow for our sins, doing penance for our sins, really embracing the cross as Jesus offers it to us day by day, all with the sure hope in the power of resurrection, that is really how we should be living. We plunge into that more deeply in the season of Lent and invite others to experience that, too.

 

Q. Lent has always been a season of sacrifice. People may give up some simple treat, like chocolate. But there’s always something deeper we can give up. Is there something deeper, is there something that we can improve upon in our spiritual lives and in our daily lives?

The focus of doing penance during Lent is that it’s a reminder of our sinfulness and that we want to turn away from sin, and sin usually involves some kind of self-indulgence, so we want to give that up. We’re also invited to turn toward our neighbor, to be charitable. But the lesson really is simple; we get off the track of God’s plan for our eternal salvation, for his desire for us, when we’re too self-indulgent or when we’re not paying enough attention to the opportunities for charity.

So, we can give up the things that are burdening us or enslaving us, that might even be hurting us or hurting somebody else. And if we can give more attention to the needs of our brothers and sisters, that doesn’t guarantee that we’re going to stay on the right path, but those are two essential alms the Church calls us to be more attentive to during the Lenten season.

It’s not just a contest to see if we can give up something and stick with it during the season of Lent, although it can feel like a contest the first couple of days. It becomes a struggle, like any human effort. So, just like training for a marathon or going on a diet for my health, it’s doing it, little by little over time, where we train ourselves along a good pattern that ultimately is beneficial. We all might think that if Lent were just two weeks long it would be easier, but there’s an ancient wisdom in giving us a period of time, like six-plus weeks, so that we really have the opportunity to develop some new habits and maybe try on, over a period of time, what it feels like to be a little less self-indulgent or to be more attentive to the needs of our neighbors rather than having it be a one-off thing.

 

Q. Lent begins each year in the depths of winter but looks toward the hope of spring. But this year, we’re also seeing challenges all around us with COVID still lingering, what’s happening in Ukraine, high gas prices, and crime still a problem. How do those challenges color our experience of Lent this year?

Lent and Easter come when they come, so we can’t put them off. There were, as some might know, some real controversies in the early Church about when Easter should be celebrated. It was pegged somewhat to the lunar calendar, so it doesn’t follow the secular calendar like Christmas does. It doesn’t have a certain day of the year. But it comes at the end of winter, the beginning of spring. Certainly by the time Easter is celebrated we’re into the season of spring, which is experienced differently in different latitudes.

But I think you’re right, the Lord calls us right in the midst of the things that we are experiencing. And certainly, we hope we’re on the far side of the worst of the pandemic, and still dealing with the effects of that, and there is this serious challenge to peace that’s focused particularly on the poor people of Ukraine, but it has reverberations all over.

We realize that our world is broken, and these are some of the effects of original sin, some of the effects of bad choices that we or other people have made. So we really need the salvation that is offered to us in Jesus Christ. Lent gives us the opportunity to focus on that need, to take responsibility for our own sinfulness, to ask God’s mercy for the sins of the human family, and really put ourselves in his hands, where we know that we can be forgiven and saved.

 

Q. Live Lent Together small groups have been a huge opportunity for people to share and grow in their faith during Lent. Last year, about 120 some leaders stepped up to lead small groups. I think that almost quadrupled this year. Can you talk about how small group faith sharing can be helpful during Lent?

I’m really excited about the number of people who have responded to this initiative. Those, first, who took the training to be group leaders, and then those who are responding to the invitation of those leaders to be part of a small group during Lent. Following Jesus is challenging, and during Lent we ramp up the challenge a little.

But he doesn’t mean for us to do it by ourselves. He invites us into the community of disciples to be his followers and friends together, with others. First of all, people will find a nice experience of community in the Live Lent Together experience this year. I encourage those who have signed up to be part of this to stick with it over these weeks. I think they’ll appreciate a deepening of their own faith, but also some nice connections with fellow parishioners or people in their community.

And second, as we face the challenges in the world around us, whether it’s COVID, whether it’s Ukraine, whether it’s other things, we’ll be doing some significant planning locally for the future of our parishes during this coming year. The experience of being disciples together with others and strengthening each other by our care and by our presence, that’s got to be crucial in experiencing our faith as being stronger than ever going forward, even though it’s a challenge.

I think especially when things are challenging, Jesus is offering us particular graces, and I think Live Lent Together is a great grace for all of us this year. It’s a great movement. It took some organizing and inviting, but people really picked up on it, which makes me think that it’s both the Lord’s plan for us right now, and the desire of people to be together in a safe but also stimulating place where we can share our faith and go in faith together.

 

Q. Another big thing is people missed being together, they missed being in relationships with people in person. I think that’s another huge factor.

At this stage of the pandemic there really is a deeper desire to be together, which is very good and it’s very human, but it’s also God’s plan for us, that we be together and attentive to one another in a community.

So the number is good but it’s about more than the numbers. Of course, it’s bringing people together, inviting the Holy Spirit in, praying together, reflecting together on our faith. Let’s see what happens. I think something really good is going to happen, and it already has, in the determination of people to be part of the groups.

 

Q. As we begin our Lenten observances, is there anything else you’d like to add?

I was praying at the Ash Wednesday Mass for everybody in the archdiocese, myself included, that this will be a real time of grace for us, a time of growth in faith, that we’ll accept the opportunity. We’re moving toward Easter, and those of us who are already baptized will have the chance to renew our baptismal promises at Easter. It’s not simply renewing something that happened a long time ago, but it’s really claiming our identity as members of God’s family, as his daughters and sons. So we want to do that very joyfully, wholeheartedly, and I think our Lenten practices will help us get there.