|A stained-glass window illustrating the sacrament of reconciliation is seen at Our Lady of Ostrabrama Church in Cutchogue, N.Y. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic|
Beginning on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 18, Catholics are called to use the season of Lent to examine their relationship with God as they prepare for Easter.
At the core of that preparation is reconciliation, both through the sacrament and in how we extend God’s love for us to others.
“This is the season in which we’re invited to much more intensely recognize again the great mercy of God and the great love of God,” said Father Bruce Morill. S.J., a professor of theological studies at Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School, where he holds the Edward A. Malloy Chair of Catholic Studies.
God’s love for us is first revealed to us when we’re baptized, Father Morrill said.
According to the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (“Sacrosanctum Concilium”), the primary purpose of Lent is to prepare the people who will receive the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist at Easter, Father Morrill said.
And secondly, for those already baptized, Lent is the season when we prepare to renew our baptismal promises, he added.
“That really puts Lent in perspective for us. It’s all about Easter,” Father Morrill said.
Lent is “all about our preparing to receive once again the great revelation of who we are in our baptism in Christ,” he added.
Catholics should think of Lent “as an intense retreat,” Father Morrill said, “stepping away and going deeper into what this whole thing is.”
“It’s a special season for healing and restoring your relationship with Jesus,” said Father John O’Neill, the chaplain at St. Cecilia Academy and Overbrook School. “It’s a time for falling in love with Jesus again.”
The readings for Ash Wednesday are a call to return to God and his love and mercy. The first reading from the Book of Joel reads: “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God. For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment.”
The second reading is taken from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians: “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him. Working together, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For he says: ‘In an acceptable time I heard you, and on the day of salvation I helped you.’ Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”
And in the Gospel reading from St. Matthew, Christ describes for his followers how to live a life of penance in what has become the traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, Father Morrill said.
Father Morrill tries to use his homilies during Lent to help “people see different dimensions of God’s grace toward them, how God has offered God’s life to them … and in light of that great generosity of God, how have we been living in response to that,” he said.
“The response has to include ‘How am I responding forward?’” Father Morrill said. “Reconciliation is also about reconciling with (our) brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ.”
“When you think about reconciliation, especially in the almsgiving and the care of the poor, we join in the very activity of God,” Father Morrill said. “This fundamental care for the poor is God’s priority. We meet Christ in the homeless, the starving, the poor.”
During Lent, penance and reconciliation take on not only an external and social aspect through acts of charity, but should also be internal and individual. “It is important to impress on the minds of the faithful not only a social consequences of sin but also that essence of the virtue of penance which leads to the detestation of sin as an offense against God,” according to the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.
Lent “is a period to reflect on whether there are any sins we need to be forgiven,” Father Morrill said. That reflection leads to the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
“As a parent you would hate if your child neglected to tell you when they were in serious trouble. And Jesus wants people to come to him when they’re in trouble,” Father O’Neill said.
“As the years have gone by, I see it as the most healing sacrament imaginable. It’s just such a relief of human pain and an infusion of peace,” said Father O’Neill, who was a physician and surgeon before becoming a priest. Hearing confessions, “I feel personally more of a surgeon than ever before in my life because it is God who wields the heavenly surgical instruments.”
“When people celebrate the sacrament of confession, the key thing is not to just remind them of what they did wrong, but why are they are there,” Father Morrill said. “I’m very moved by people’s confessions. They see it in the light of how much God loves them.”