Lent is many things. It is a period of retreat; a privileged moment of grace; a time for prayer, fasting and almsgiving; an opportunity to receive the Sacrament of Mercy, grow in faith and renew our friendship with God. However, it is also a special and unique time for us to pray, meditate and contemplate the cross of Christ, the cross of love.
Jesus’ life was a pilgrimage back to the Father’s house from the crib in Bethlehem, to the cross outside the city wall of Jerusalem. Lent is a pilgrimage back to the Father’s house from the sober call of repentance on Ash Wednesday to Jesus’ Passion and Death and victory and joy of Easter Sunday.
Together we enter more deeply into the mystery of Jesus’ cross and experience in deeper measure the love and mercy of God. For the cross, although an instrument of cruelty, death and torture was transformed into the greatest sign of God’s love for each of us. The cross reveals God’s love and we become lovers of the cross. As lovers of the cross we glory in the cross, rejoice in the cross and praise God for the cross.
The Holy Spirit gives us the grace to boast in the cross: ‘May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world’ (Galatians 6:14).
Pope Francis said of Jesus’ cross: ‘O Cross of Christ, symbol of divine love and of human injustice, icon of the supreme sacrifice for love and of boundless selfishness even unto madness, instrument of death and the way of resurrection, sign of obedience and emblem of betrayal, the gallows of persecution and the banner of victory.’
Our hearts sing the glory and praise of God as we look upon the depth of God’s love revealed on the cross. How do we know what love is? St John tells us: ‘This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us’ (1 John 3:16).
Through baptism we are immersed into the mystery of Jesus’ death on the cross. Through this great mystery of faith we die with Christ but we also rise with him, re-born as new creations.
Through the cross we receive so many blessings; we are reconciled to God, our sins are forgiven, we are justified and made righteous, and a new humanity is born.
Through the power of this grace this Lent we fast with joy, pray with hope and give alms with God’s love burning in our hearts.
Our English word Lent derives from the Old English word lencten meaning ‘spring season.’
Lent then is a time for a spiritual spring clean, a retreat or pilgrimage, when we are invited to take up the ancient disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving as signs of our desire to deny and purify ourselves so we can draw near to God.
We commit to a path of self-denial and enter a period of examination of conscience, prayer, and seeking God’s mercy and forgiveness through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Lent is a time for renewal and refreshment, in which, by God’s grace, we can grow and mature in faith. It is truly a God-given moment of privileged grace; a divine opportunity, if you like, to enter more deeply into the mystery of faith. At the heart of our faith is the mystery of the cross through which God’s love is supremely revealed.
Jesus’ entire life was focused on the hour of his cross and the deepest meaning of Lent is discovered on our knees before the mystery of Him crucified.
As so often in the Christian life, in order to go forward, we must first look back. We reflect on the pilgrimage of the Jewish people through the desert, to the moment when they were set upon by poisonous snakes, whose bite was enough to kill. Moses interceded with God, for the people had been rebellious. At the Lord’s command Moses fashioned a bronze serpent, raised it before the people and, we read, all who gazed upon it were cured and protected from the evil of the snakes. (Numbers 21.9).
Jesus pointed to this when he said: ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man you will know that I Am He’ (John 8.28). Jesus refers to himself as ‘I Am’ which was the phrase used throughout the Old Testament to express the nature, presence and reality of God.
Faith reveals to us that Jesus: ‘Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross! (Phil 2:6-8)
Lent is a time for us behold the man, the man of sorrow, the man of suffering; the man who had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him; the man who took up our infirmities, carried our sorrows, was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities; the man who by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53).
The message of the cross is the message of God’s love. We cannot earn this love, we don’t deserve this love; we can only receive this love. This is love, not that we first loved God but that God first loved us (1 John 4:19).
The cross however isn’t simply a historic event. Through baptism we were immersed into Jesus death and resurrection and through the the liturgy, and supremely in the Eucharist, the cross is made real and present to us.
The cross has the power to change and transform our lives. We were baptized into Christ’s death so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead, through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
This new life means that we can conquer old established, deeply rooted, sin patterns, we can be set free from those things which prevent us from enjoying and knowing God’s life, we can have a living sense of God’s mercy, forgiveness and joy.
Pope Francis said: ‘An Iraqi priest came over to me in St Peter’s Square and gave me a small cross: He told me that it was the cross that a priest held in his hand as he was beheaded for his refusal to deny Jesus. When we look upon a crucifix we are gazing on the sign of God’s love. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit we can receive the gift of a grace of revelation which enables us to be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God’ (Ephesians 3:19).
When we renew our baptismal promises at the Easter Vigil Mass, or on Easter Sunday, we can do so with a renewed sense and understanding of God’s great love for us personally, but also for the world.
For the cross reveals supremely that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his One and Only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16).
We can be bold and confident that if we ask it will be given to us, if we seek, we shall find and if we knock the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7). We can also put our trust in God, as St Paul says: ‘Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever. Amen’ (Ephesians 3; 20-21).