For millions of Christians around the world, Feb. 6 this year marked the beginning of Lent, the annual season of almsgiving, self-examination and repentance. Lent prepares us for the great feast of Easter. The fasting and acts of self-denial most of us make during Lent in food, drink and entertainment reflect a key truth about our faith. Christianity is incarnational. God's word became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. His death on the cross and his resurrection from the grave remind us that each human being – body and soul – was made by God, redeemed by Christ and destined for eternal life.
For Catholics, Lent is a time when God invites all of us to enter into a deeper relationship with himself. Lent is our pilgrimage to Calvary, and beyond that, to Easter and abundant life. Jesus came to save us; to show us that our lives have meaning; that God loves us; that despite all our sins, no matter how dark, he treasures us as his sons and daughters; that suffering has a purpose; that each person no matter how infirm or disabled has dignity; and that death is never the end of who we are.
All of us live much of our daily lives with an interior struggle. On the one hand, each of us is born with an ache for "something more." We all have a natural longing for happiness, but we can't be happy alone. We were made for wholeness, for friendship with one another, and for communion with our Creator. This is what Augustine means in his words from the Confessions: "Our hearts are restless, (God,) until they rest in thee." Like Augustine, our hearts are restless for the joy which only friendship with God through Jesus Christ can bring.
On the other hand, all of us are selfish. Each of us is a sinner. Again and again, despite our best intentions, we make wrong choices, do bad things and hurt those we love. And on the heels of our personal failures always comes the temptation to despair of ever really changing. We're tempted to shrug off holiness as a "good idea" that just doesn't work.
Of course, Catholics should know better because we have the example of the saints. The better we know the stories of the saints, the better we understand that most of them were very much like us. They were ordinary people who gradually made a habit of the right choices and good actions. Day by day, they wove extraordinary lives out of ordinary material.
With God's help, we can do the same. Lent is not a time to revile ourselves. After all, what God loves, we hardly have the right to hate. But the fasting, prayer and mortifications of the season do have a very important purpose: they help us to clear our soul of debris. They cut away the selfishness that obstructs our view of God and blocks his light from us. As Scripture says, in denying ourselves we find ourselves – because we're incomplete and restless, we're not fully ourselves, without God.
Lent is an invitation to dethrone the distractions that keep our hearts restless and empty. If we make room for the real King, he'll do much more than fill the space. He'll make us what he intended us to be: saints. So let's live this Lent not as a burden, but as an amnesty, a joy, a way of refocusing ourselves on the one thing that really does matter eternally – friendship with God.
For each of us, there's no better place to begin or renew that friendship than in the confessional. God's love for his people is the one love that does not and cannot fail.