“Why does the Church place ashes on our foreheads today? Why does she remind us of death? Death which is the effect of sin! Why?…To prepare us for Christ’s Passover. For the Paschal Mystery of the Redeemer of the world. Paschal Mystery means what we profess in the Creed: “On the third day He rose again’!”

– Pope St John Paul II

One of the dangers of our journey through Lent is that we focus on the particular and – in the process – lose sight of the essential.

I read a post recently in which a Priest noted he had absent-mindedly broken his Lenten penance; realising what he had done, he immediately corrected himself, noted his mistake and mentioned it as a way of encouraging people to keep trying, even when we fail. Of the many who replied, it seemed that a number had entirely missed the point of the lesson the Priest was offering, and I had the impression that for some, the penances of Lent seemed to be something of a competition; what was clear was that the particular had gotten in the way of the essential. Put another way, the particular itself had become the essential, rather than being the means to an end. And in this way, the connection between the two had been lost.

So what is the essential?

In Saint Matthew’s Gospel, we read this –

“Then Jesus told His disciples, ‘If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me’.” (Matt. 16:24)

The Church echoes this when we read in the Catechism –

“Taking up one’s cross each day and following Jesus is the surest way of penance” (Catechism, para.1435)

And so, in a special way, Lent is the season when we focus on self-denial and the taking up of our own crosses, in order that we might follow the Lord more perfectly. That is the essential. The specific ways we choose in order to do this are the particulars, and they are the means to that end and not an end in themselves.

For most of us, the ‘self-denial’ part – our penitential practices – take two broad forms; either doing something we don’t normally do (such as daily Mass rather than only on Sundays, or an extra Rosary, or the Stations of the Cross), or else not doing something we normally do (such as giving up cakes or chocolate or some other enjoyment). We deny ourselves in some way – sacrificing our time or our pleasure, for example – as a means of expressing our desire to deny ourselves for love of the Lord and as a way of trying to do as He asks of us in the Gospel, even if that way is very small and seemingly insignificant (to us or to others). It is not so much the thing itself, but the love with which it is undertaken.

We begin the season of Lent with the imposition of ashes. Firstly, those ashes remind us that “to dust we shall return” – in other words, focus on the essentials of life, choose what really matters, and keep looking ahead. We could summarise this by saying that we need to ger our priorities rightly-ordered. Secondly, the ashes are placed upon us in the shape of a Cross; we are reminded to set our eyes upon Christ Crucified, to remember that this holy season is leading us to Golgotha and to the Cross of the Lord – that Cross is our salvation and it is only through the Cross that we reach the joy of Easter and the Resurrection. Again, we could summarise this by saying we need to ger our priorities rightly-ordered; Christ first, and above all things.

Along with the self-denial of Lent, we also undertake almsgiving, supporting our Lenten endeavours with strenuous prayer. The Catechism says –

“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, para.1434)

We speak of ‘penance’ because throughout all of our Lenten good works, our eyes should be fixed upon the Cross. And in looking at that Cross, we call to mind precisely what it means.

The Cross reminds us most clearly that we are sinners who are in need of redemption – and in this sacrifical act of the Lord, willingly undergoing His Passion and His Death upon the holy Cross, we are indeed redeemed.

But there is more – 

“The Cross is the unique sacrifice of Christ, the ‘one Mediator between God and men’. But because in His incarnate divine Person He has in some way united Himself to every man, ‘the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery’ is offered to all men. He calls His disciples to ‘take up [their] cross and follow [Him]’, for ‘Christ also suffered for [us], leaving [us] an example so that [we] should follow in His steps.’ In fact Jesus desires to associate with His redeeming sacrifice those who were to be its first beneficiaries. This is achieved supremely in the case of His Mother, who was associated more intimately than any other person in the mystery of His redemptive suffering.” (Catechism, para.618)

These words of the Church remind us that every single one of us has a specific role to play in this work of redemption – we have become partners with Christ, and it is this to which the season of Lent calls us. And so, all of our penitential acts, our prayers and our almsgiving, have these ideas as their foundation – that we are creatures, sinful and in need of redemption, which comes to us through the Cross of Christ, and that we are called to participate in this redemption.

This is truly the essential; how we achieve it is the particular, but must always be bound to that essential as the end we keep in mind. Otherwise, it becomes meaningless. Yesterday, I read a post which touched on some of these ideas and it noted that without that essential focus, “our fasting becomes nothing more than a diet”. I had to agree.

Let us, then, continue to pray, to fast and to give alms; but remembering all the while that these acts are an expression of something much deeper and far more profound, something which is found only in the Cross. And only by standing in the shadow of that Cross, in whatever way we are able or in whichever way we are called, can it make sense and offer true meaning.