Beloved in the Lord,
We begin our Lenten journey at a troubling time. Our world continues to be challenged in a multitude of ways. The global refugee crisis, war, homelessness, terrorism, poverty, and religious persecution are sadly just a few examples of what we hear about on a daily basis. We have become polarized as a society, and even the life of the Church has been caught up in this snare which has diminished our ability to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with the world.
Christians and Christianity once changed the world through God-like character and virtue. Today, Christians squabble amongst themselves usually over trivial matters instead of focusing on the proclamation of the Gospel in a changing world. If we are to remedy the situation, we must heed the words of the petition to “commend ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God.” The season of Great Lent offers us many tools to place us on this path.
Our challenge is to listen to the counsel of the Church, offered each day during Great Lent. In just the first week, we will hear the following: “O Word of God, You made Your disciples as the stars and by their preaching they have illumined the ends of the earth; enlighten our hearts with light of the virtues and cleanse us through fasting, granting to Your servants repentance and conversion, that we may glorify You, O Savior, Who are alone supreme in love.” In this short hymn, many themes about our Lenten journey and practices are offered for us to consider.
The hymn mentions the fast, our ascetic discipline of removing certain foods from our diets. This discipline is there not just as a seasonal diet but is a guide to curb other harmful aspects of our lives so that we may develop a virtuous life. Our goal is Christ-like living. The fast is a means, not an end in itself. With the guidance of your parish priest, you should strive to observe the fast to the best of your ability, and to use a phrase of our day “repeal bad habits and replace them with virtues.”
The hymn prays that we may repent and convert through the fast. Repentance (metanoia) as we know is to “change one’s thinking.” The original Greek word for conversion in this hymn is epistrophe, “to return.” Looking at our world, we can certainly see the need for repentance, but to where or to what should we return? In the parable of the Prodigal, we see the answer. The Prodigal has found himself in the lowest of the lowest situations, eating with swine. In that terrible state he repents and says “I will arise and go to my father.” (Luke 15:18). Our conversion during Great Lent is to arise and lift ourselves out of the morass and return to our Heavenly Father, who waits to receive us, and have us abide in the riches of His Kingdom. We find Him in the Church, in liturgy and prayer, in service and philanthropy to our neighbor, and in the study of His Word in Scripture.
The hymn mentions the virtues. The Christian life has always been identified as a morally virtuous life. From antiquity, seven virtues have been named and pursued most often: faith, hope, love, prudence or forethought, justice, temperance or self-control, and courage. We can certainly see that our world is deficient in them. Our Lenten journey is an opportunity to reflect on our lives, and in those are where we find deficiencies reform ourselves. The Sacrament of Confession can offer each of us the chance to speak the truth of our lives to God and receive not just forgiveness, but guidance for leading a better, more virtuous life. In a retreat, we can pause and reflect in silence. In reading Scriptures, the lives of saints, or the Fathers of our Church, we can learn about these virtues and discern how to enliven them in ourselves.
Finally, the hymn refers to the disciples of Christ, His first followers, who carried the Good News to the ends of the earth. Throughout Great Lent we will remember the examples of history, the Apostles and Fathers, the Saints, and many others whose lives shine as stars in heaven. The lives of Christians have always been the greatest witness of the Gospel. Articles and books are helpful, but the living examples of Christians have always been more convincing. Today, we are those disciples. We are called by Christ to illumine the world through our Christ-like examples, that we have refined this year in our Lenten journey.
My beloved, may this Lenten season prove to bring to us closer to Christ and His Church, and in so doing, make each of us bear witness to the life-giving Good News of God’s love for the world.
With Love in Christ,
+ G E R A S I M O S
Metropolitan of San Francisco