Seeking God’s Forgiveness During Lent

Lent is an excellent time for seeking God’s forgiveness via the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In this sacrament, God cleanses us from our sins and reunites us to Christ. Although you may be apprehensive at the onset of disclosing your sins to priest, it is really Christ to whom you are confessing your sins, as the priest is acting in persona Christi, in the person of Christ. You will exit the confessional filled with God’s graces of gratitude, humility, joy and peace.

As a Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) Coordinator for my parish, I work with people coming from other Christian faiths (or even no faith) who wish to consider becoming Catholic. One of the most common questions I get is “Why do Catholics confess their sins to a priest? Why can’t you just ask God directly for forgiveness?” To answer these questions, this video from Bustedhalo.com gives the best answers:

Seeking God’s forgiveness, along with that of the community, brings us back into union with God and neighbor. Lent is the perfect time to do that, as Jesus is at the ready to issue His pardon for our sins. So, make the time to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation in preparation for the Easter celebration. Open your heart, not only to God’s forgiveness, but that of your neighbor as well. By doing so, you will make your Lenten season more fruitful, not just for you, but for those around you. Then, be a witness for others to the saving grace of Christ received in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Virginia Lieto teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online. She is the author of children’s book Finding Patience and blogs at www.virginialieto.com.

This post first appeared on www.virginialieto.com.

Ash Wednesday and Forgetfulness

From the perspective of those outside of the Catholic and Orthodox Christian traditions, Ash Wednesday appears odd. On one occasion, I can recall – on the campus of a Catholic college, no less – overhearing undergraduates speculate that ashes on the foreheads of students must be the product of “pledge week” for fraternities and sororities. (Yikes!) Frequently, in the classroom, I would encounter the belief that Christians should always be aware of their need for redemption, and that the practice of distributing ashes one day a year served to undercut what should be a constant mindfulness. In other words, it makes what should be a daily awareness into an annual activity. While I would agree that the disciple of Christ should always be mindful of his/her need for redemption, and Christ’s abundant love for us in bringing it about, the human reality is that we are in need of constant reminding. We forget. And we not only forget because we have poor memories, we forget because we have fallen memories.

If we take the time to reflect upon memory, we should be struck by its power. After all, it is a sort of conjuring. My Nonna (of blessed memory) passed away some years ago, and yet I can recall her image, the sound of her voice, and how the soft skin of her wrinkled hand felt against mine. Every now and again, I will even associate a particular scent with that of her home. It’s difficult to describe but, when prompted by a similar smell, I’ll say to myself: “That smells like Nonna’s house.” The substantial existence of these things has long since gone, but in my memory I experience them again. What a truly marvelous gift we human beings have been given!

Lent is that time of the liturgical year when we especially recall the gospel proclamation of Christ himself: “‘The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel’” (Mk 1:14-15; see Mt 4:17). During today’s Mass, a portion of this passage is one of two that one might hear when receiving ashes; the other being: “Remember that ‘you are dust and to dust you shall return’” (Gen 3:19). It is a somewhat traditional English translation to render the word “repent” in this verse from the original word “metanoeite,” but the Greek word has a much richer meaning. It is a combination of the words “mind” [nous] and “beyond” [meta], and one could interpret this word rather physically as meaning “take your head and turn it 180 degrees.” In one sense, a better English word than “repent” is “conversion.” What we remember today is that Christ calls us to himself, to live in communion with him, and that this communion requires being attuned to him in heart, soul, and mind (cf. Lk 10:27; Dt 6:5). In short, today Christ calls us to “return to [him] with [our] whole heart” (Jl 1:12).

For the disciple of Christ, this turning of heart and mind should be a daily occurrence, an ever present mindfulness. But all too often, we forget. And forgetfulness often doesn’t happen all at once, but gradually our memories erode like stones by the seashore. Prayer becomes simply rote, then neglected. Reception of the sacraments (especially confession!) becomes infrequent. One’s spiritual life becomes the discrete unit of a time-managed schedule “blocked off” on Sundays from 10 am to noon.

If the above description resonates with you, today Christ is proclaiming his good news to you. This is not because he has waited for the appropriate day on the liturgical calendar to do so (he is always calling to you). But because we fragile human beings need more explicit reminders of Christ’s call to conversion from time to time. We need Ash Wednesday because we forget. We forget that Christ’s love for us calls for our love in response. We forget that our love for him is lived out in a life of prayer, fasting, and charity. And we forget that this life – while not easy – is joyful.

And so today we are reminded of death, so that we may live. We are reminded of our mortality, so that we might enjoy immortality. We are reminded of our sin, so that we might be reconciled to God. We are reminded on this one particular day, that Christ calls us to himself each and every day

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for the Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

 

 

The Transfiguration –  The Key to Spiritual Success This Lent

 

There’s a movie called Mask that’s based on a true story about a 16-year-old boy named Rocky Dennis.  Rocky had a very rare disease that caused his skull and the bones in his face to grow much larger than they should.  As a result, his face was terribly misshapen and disfigured. His grotesque appearance caused some people to shy away from him, while others just snickered and laughed and, for as long as he could remember, a lot of the kids called him names.

Through it all, Rocky never pitied himself.  He never gave way to anger.  He never blamed God for his problems.  Though he felt bad about his appearance, he accepted it as a special challenge – a part of life that he just had to make the best of.  One day Rocky and some of his friends were visiting an amusement park.  They went into the place there Maskcalled “the house of mirrors.”  They all began to laugh at how distorted their bodies and their faces looked in the mirrors.  Suddenly Rocky saw something that startled him. One of the mirrors distorted his misshapen face in such a way that it appeared normal – even strikingly handsome.  For the first time, Rocky’s friends saw him in a whole new way. They saw from the outside what he really was on the inside: a truly beautiful person.  Something like this happened to Jesus at the Transfiguration.

During his Transfiguration, Jesus’ disciples saw him in a whole new way.  For the first time, they saw from the outside what he really was on the inside: the glorious and beautiful Son of God.  This event occurred right after Jesus told his disciples that he would have to go to Jerusalem and there be handed over to the Romans to suffer and die.  When Peter heard this is cried out, “God forbid.  Nothing like that is ever going to happen to you.”  Jesus then said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!  You are an obstacle to me.  You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” (Matthew 16:22-23)  Peter, James and John needed a spiritual shot in the arm to strengthen them after that shocking experience.

The-Transfiguration-Of-Christ-300x210In the Transfiguration experience, the three disciples were given a glimpse of Christ’s glory. It was designed to help them understand who Jesus really is, and to strengthen them in their faith so that they would have what to takes to live out their vocation and become what they were called to be.  Peter, James and John were given a moment of grace. Moments of grace are gifts from God.  They can’t be merited.  They can’t be won. They can’t be manufactured.  All we can do is dispose ourselves to receive them.

If we persevere on our spiritual adventure and listen carefully with the ears of faith, the day will come – either here or in heaven – when we too will hear a voice.  It will say to us what the voice on the mountain said of Jesus: “This is my own dear son or daughter, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 17:5) During the Season of Lent, we are especially encouraged to re-visit our priorities, the way we spend our time, and we are promised holy transfigurations when we devote ourselves to God in prayer.

After the Resurrection, Jesus again climbed up the mountain with the disciples and again He was transfigured.  He anointed the disciples with his power and authority, and before Jesus departed, he commanded them to return to the world and to share his Gospel of love.  They didn’t get it in that Transfiguration mountain-top moment.  They didn’t even get it when the resurrected Jesus ascended into heaven.  They didn’t get it until one fearful day they gathered desperately wanting to know what to do, now that Jesus was gone. Seeking to discern who they were to be, they came together to pray.

On that Pentecost day, the disciples finally understood that all along Jesus was teaching them to pray together.  That day they prayed together, and the very power of God came down and filled them with divine glory, light and purpose.  When we pray together, God’s Spirit comes down from the heaven and fills us with the prophetic energy of Jesus.  All of us need the vision of the mountaintop.  All of us need transfiguration experiences, where our entire perspective is changed, where the fog is lifted and we see more clearly.  If we stop and reflect upon our lives, it’s likely that we’ve all already had such experiences.

We can identify with Peter, when he attempts to capture and prolong the moment by asking to make three dwellings for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses.  However, like Peter, James and John, we come to realize that we cannot live on the mountaintop forever.  The valleys beckon us to come down and live our lives as servants with other people, just as Jesus and the three apostles did.  The mountaintop had prepared them for the loving service of others, and the same is true of us.  The three disciples needed this mountaintop experience to uplift, encourage and inspire them, to teach them the importance of prayer, and to strengthen them for the challenges ahead.

The Transfiguration reminds us that when we climb with Jesus, pray with Jesus and listen for God’s Word with Jesus, God’s glory will surround us and we will be guided down the mountaintops into the world, there to be Christ’s healing people.  Jesus descended the mountain into a crowd of people who sought a new humanity, and he immediately proclaimed the reign of God by preaching good news to the poor, teaching by word and deed, healing the sick, forgiving sinners, and calling all to repent and believe in the gospel.  He wanted his disciples (and now us) to do the same things.  Like Moses and Jesus, we are called to be a light in the darkness of our world.  Lent is a time for asking ourselves how well we are living out our calling.

Lent is a time for asking ourselves how well we are letting our light shine before others, so that they may see it and give glory to our Father in heaven.  If we aren’t doing as well as we could, Lent is a time for repenting and beginning anew to live out our calling.  Let us realize that there is, indeed, more beyond what we can see on the outside.  Let us be transformed and changed as we resolve to do better this Lent.

Deacon Greg Ollick teaches sacred scripture for Saint Joseph’s College Online. He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Atlanta and runs The Epiphany Initiative website.

Setting Relationships Right

Worth Revisiting Wednesday – This post originally appeared on March 16, 2014.

Among Catholics who take the season of Lent seriously, I’ve noticed a number of different approaches. There are the subscribers to Lent as boot camp. Boot campers decide to fast not just from one food they love, but from most foods they love. Added to this, they decide to get up an hour earlier than normal to pray or go to Mass, and they are going to give money to anyone they meet who needs help.  A second group makes one serious commitment and day by day spends a little more time thinking about God, remembers they are not eating fried foods and discovers the joy of crunchy vegetables, and starts collecting their change each day so as to make a contribution to a worthy group. A third group is pretty darn casual about the whole thing, happy that, over forty days, they may remember not to eat meat on a Friday or two, will get to confession, and will go all in for the campus ministry or parish hunger awareness campaign.

Many of us, me included, have a love-hate relationship with Lent. It can so easily become more of a contest than a season of prayer. Thomas Merton once remarked that his brothers, in wanting to outdo one another in the severity of their fasts, became a bunch of grouchy, miserable men. Far better, Thomas thought, to feast and give thanks to God for his abundance than to fast and make yourself and others miserable. How is that holy? Thomas wondered.

The ancient disciplines of prayer, fasting, almsgiving which define the season of Lent are about making right the three most important relationships in the life of a Christian, God, self and others. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read that “the interior penance of the Christian can be expressed in many and various ways. Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms,pray fast give fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1434). Rather than a contest with our best and worst selves, we are invited to think about what will make our relationship with God stronger. Where do we need to bring some balance into our lives so as to be healthier and what relationships are asking us to be more giving; emotionally, practically or monetarily?

I’ve learned from my own experience that Lent is most fruitful when I take some time to think about how I can deepen my relationship with God. What am I eating or drinking or doing (or maybe not doing) that is really not healthy or good for me? And where can I be more generous with the people who are part of my everyday life?  Answering these questions opens up a number of practices that will make a difference over the course of forty days. My goal is to make these things a habit, not doing them for forty days and then be done, but rather to discover at the end of 40 days, they have become easier and have found a permanent place in my daily routine. If done well, I also am more aware of the depth and breadth of God’s love and mercy, because whether I am successful or not, I am saved. Jesus died for me so that my own failures and sins are not the end of my story.

Susan Timoney is Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington.

Who Said This Was Going To Be Easy?

Lenten discipline requires the reconsideration of our spiritual state.

Deacon Scott Dodge (a great blog to follow after the St Joseph’s College Theology blog!) provides a thoughtful connection between popular culture and classic Christian art, specifically Grunewald’s Isenheim altarpierce, here. Deacon Scott: “The failure of our own words, of our ability to comprehend and articulate the greatness, the height, length, and depth of love of God’s great love for us should drive us to God’s word.” He then quotes Romans 5:6-9, but I would rather reflect on today’s Gospel, Matthew 5:11-17:

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away,
not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter
will pass from the law,
until all things have taken place.
Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments
and teaches others to do so
will be called least in the Kingdom of heaven.
But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments
will be called greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.”

Each of the four Gospels brings its own voice, comforts, and challenges to the story of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Among Matthew’s many gifts (e.g., 16:18-20), I find most rewarding and provocative Chapter Five’s intensifications of the Jewish Law. Thou shall not murder? Well, even if you’re angry with somebody, stop what you’re doing and seek reconciliation. Thou shall not commit adultery? That’s not enough—do not even look another lustfully. So much for the nice, domesticated Jesus we like to tell ourselves we already resemble. No, in Matthew’s gospel Jesus holds us to a higher, not lower, standard. And this is the Word of God to which Lent inexorably drives us, not a Jesus who confirms our smugly-held opinions, nor a Jesus who simply ignores our sins. As G. K. Chesterton so aptly put it, “the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” Who said this was going to be easy?

Bernini from St Peters domeThe Lenten stereotype depicts the unwillingly ascetic Catholic wallowing in self-abnegation. I, though, found Deacon Scott’s words about God’s greatness reminded me of the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968). Barth often stood quite opposed to Roman Catholic theology, even as he avidly read St. Augustine and St. Anselm (among others). Good Calvinist that he was, Barth began his theology with the absolute sovereignty of God. Mankind cannot save itself; only God can do that. Barth asserted God’s NO! to all human pretensions to religious agency and self-direction. The YES that comes in the Incarnation overcomes that negation, but, Barth believed, the NO still remained. That, in part, was made grace what it was—thoroughly unmerited.  While he spent far more time and ink lambasting fellow Protestants, Barth always considered standard Roman Catholic spirituality a target of that divine NO! Thus it is seems rather ironic that Wikiquote welds Barth’s famous words of YES and NO to…Gian-Lorenzo Bernini’s Holy Spirit stained-glass window gracing the western wall of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Gone are the days when I accepted prima facie everything Barth wrote. Deo gratias! However, occasionally a little Barth reinvigorates the theological project. Barth’s insistence on divine sovereignty resonates with the Gospel image of Jesus declaring the Law’s enduring presence. Not only that, but the NO! extends to our own teaching. Since the Law remains valid, we simply cannot invent what we want and disregard what we dislike. Knowledge of the Law implies teaching the whole Law. We can’t blunt the sharp edges to make it “nicer.” With his customary brevity and sharp insight, Father Robert Barron critiques this facile presumption that being Christian means being nice. Father Barron doesn’t mention Barth—he doesn’t need to—but the point remains: God calls us to something greater than merely being nice to each other.

While it wanders off to once-current issues, this post from my own blog addresses the same point through the lens of an Augustinian critique of American evangelical eschatology. It wasn’t until I had read St. Augustine that I began to understand my dislike for Protestant eschatologies: they were too easy and too self-assured. Chapter Five of Matthew’s gospel offers the initial, damning criticism: this will not be easier—quite frankly, it will be more difficult than before! That is a tough message to hear, which perhaps is why Christian history is filled with those seeking waivers. Christian theology is filled with so many false starts because of the failure to confront honestly today’s gospel: Jesus comes not to abolish, but to uphold, the Law which, by the way, remains very much in effect. It is to such stark reminders that Lent calls us.

Quite frankly, we don’t always start where we should. I started with St. Augustine, and then only later realized that St. Augustine himself points us all back to the Gospel (and thus the Gospels). And there we find both the negation of our human pretensions and yet simultaneously the reaffirmation of God’s love for us—in the same person, Jesus. So will the Way of Jesus be an easy ride? More than likely no—in fact, it can be quite bumpy and crooked. What was that about not abolishing? Yet Jesus also tells us: “I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). So it is not easy, but it will be worth it—and along the way we receive life itself.

Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.

Enroll in the School of Forgiveness

To err is human; to forgive, Divine. The old adage about God’s mercy and our frailty provides a tempting means of letting ourselves off the hook when it comes to forgiving others. After all, as “mere humans,” we’re weak, fragile and subject to every whim, distraction and opportunity for self-indulgence with which we’re presented. According to this line of thought, “I’m only human,” becomes a defense for wrongdoing that (if we’re honest) each of us has employed at one time or another. Doing what is right and just at all times is impossible for us, so we might as well not worry about striving too hard to hit the mark. As for forgiveness: it’s a goal, but not one we’re expected to consistently attain because some things are just too awful to forgive (human weakness, after all). All of the “tough stuff,” the hard things in life, and those that require a lot of extra effort – those are things God can do, but not us “puny humans.”

Today is Ash Wednesday, the gift the Church gives us as a call to self-reflection and repentance – and to the realization that we are to strive toward the Divine. It is the Forgivenessbeginning of the Lenten season, and an opportunity to truly walk with Jesus as He makes His way toward the Cross. For Eastern Catholics, this season actually began two days earlier. Monday marked the first day of The Great Fast (as it is called in the East), and it begins, in a way, by refuting the adage about forgiveness being strictly God’s province.

The day before The Fast begins is known as Forgiveness Sunday, wherein we remember the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden, and the beginning of the path toward salvation. Vespers are celebrated in the evening, and end with a Service of Mutual Forgiveness, in which everyone – from the priest, to the altar servers, to the people in the pew – approach each other individually to ask for and receive forgiveness with these words:

Forgive me, a sinner.
God Himself forgives you.

It is often difficult for us to “work up the courage” to examine our consciences and “enter the box” to confess our sins. Yet the experience of God’s grace, and the relief of letting go of the dead weight of sin that gets in the way of experiencing true love and peace, calls us back again and again. Entering into the Holy Mystery of Confession is essential for our spiritual (and general) health year round, but it’s especially important at the start of, and throughout, The Fast.

Just as important is our willingness to let go of our pride and face each other in a stance of humility and openness: to ask for forgiveness, and be willing to forgive. Neither is easy. Depending upon the ways we’ve hurt others – or been hurt by them – it can feel equally as impossible to ask forgiveness as it is to grant it. This is why the Fast is so important for us, not simply as a spiritual discipline, or the fulfillment of a requirement. Self-denial – breaking out of the cocoon of self-centeredness – is the introductory course in the School of Forgiveness. It’s a course we all need to repeat again and again, but the Teacher is patient and willing to tutor us in the ways of love and surrender.

“To err” is human, inasmuch as our inclination toward sin is our inheritance from the fall of our first parents. Yet to forgive is human, too. To forgive is to be authentically human; humanity made possible by the Incarnation of the second person of the Trinity. Jesus, Son of God, took flesh and became human so that we could become like God.

If it’s been a month – or it’s been years – since you “stepped into the box,” stop where you are and examine your conscience. Go to confession at the first opportunity you can. Then examine your conscience again and forgive those who have hurt you. If you can do it in person, go to them in humility and love. If that’s not possible, forgive them in your heart and pray to God for them. Revise the adage and give it new meaning in your life: To err is human; to forgive, authentically human through the grace of the Divine Savior.

Forgive…because God Himself forgives you.

Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Setting Relationships Right

Among Catholics who take the season of Lent seriously, I’ve noticed a number of different approaches. There are the subscribers to Lent as boot camp. Boot campers decide to fast not just from one food they love, but from most foods they love. Added to this, they decide to get up an hour earlier than normal to pray or go to Mass, and they are going to give money to anyone they meet who needs help.  A second group makes one serious commitment and day by day spends a little more time thinking about God, remembers they are not eating fried foods and discovers the joy of crunchy vegetables, and starts collecting their change each day so as to make a contribution to a worthy group. A third group is pretty darn casual about the whole thing, happy that, over forty days, they may remember not to eat meat on a Friday or two, will get to confession, and will go all in for the campus ministry or parish hunger awareness campaign.

Many of us, me included, have a love-hate relationship with Lent. It can so easily become more of a contest than a season of prayer. Thomas Merton once remarLentked that his brothers, in wanting to outdo one another in the severity of their fasts, became a bunch of grouchy, miserable men. Far better, Thomas thought, to feast and give thanks to God for his abundance than to fast and make yourself and others miserable. How is that holy? Thomas wondered.

The ancient disciplines of prayer, fasting, almsgiving which define the season of Lent are about making right the three most important relationships in the life of a Christian, God, self and others. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read that “the interior penance of the Christian can be expressed in many and various ways. Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1434). Rather than a contest with our best and worst selves, we are invited to think about what will make our relationship with God stronger. Where do we need to bring some balance into our lives so as to be healthier and what relationships are asking us to be more giving; emotionally, practically or monetarily?

I’ve learned from my own experience that Lent is most fruitful when I take some time to think about how I can deepen my relationship with God. What am I eating or drinking or doing (or maybe not doing) that is really not healthy or good for me? And where can I be more generous with the people who are part of my everyday life?  Answering these questions opens up a number of practices that will make a difference over the course of forty days. My goal is to make these things a habit, not doing them for forty days and then be done, but rather to discover at the end of 40 days, they have become easier and have found a permanent place in my daily routine. If done well, I also am more aware of the depth and breadth of God’s love and mercy, because whether I am successful or not, I am saved. Jesus died for me so that my own failures and sins are not the end of my story.

Susan Timoney is the Assistant Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington.