For Catholics, Lent is a sure part of the rhythm of life. The sacred season comes around every year, like an old friend who visits, without fail. The familiarity of her visits creates a tension within us—we are reassured by something so regular, so certain; and yet, we are challenged to live each Lent with a true readiness to change, to embrace each Lent as precious and potentially exceptional.
We ask ourselves, What will make this Lent special? Is there a new angle, a new inspiration, I can find this year? At the same time, we look forward to doing things just as we did them last year, finding peace and satisfaction in our Lenten traditions. This is as it should be. Every year, we should feel ourselves both deeply comforted and uncomfortably prodded by the familiar rituals, and the perennial demands, of this very special season.
What we are looking for during Lent is simple. We are looking for a way to strip away the things that are not necessary, to be uncomplicated before God, to accept and imitate his love. Every year, as Lent comes around again, we realize that our beautiful old friend has come to tell us stories that are less about sorrow and more about love, less about a victim and more about a victor, less about sin and more about transformation—a transformation purchased willingly and at great cost.
There is never really a new angle on Lent. Rather, every Lent, we stand at the foot of the cross—or, better yet, we join Jesus on the cross; we find that we are nailed there, too. Every ritual, every fast, every small sacrifice we make leads us to the cross. It is where we find our Savior. And it is where we must remain if we want to know the power of Jesus’ resurrection.
A Blatant Display of God’s Love
Saint Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth that what he wanted was to “know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). From Paul’s perspective, the crucified Christ is the spiritual lens through which our Christian lives come into focus. Knowing “nothing . . . except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” is a proclamation that at the very heart of our faith and our lives looms a cross.
The good news is that this cross has an attracting power, a transforming power, a pull so strong that Paul is single-minded in his desire to be crucified with Christ and crucified to the world (Gal 2:20; 6:14). If we join Saint Paul in this single-minded determination, if the crucified Christ fills our hearts and minds, then we open ourselves to the dynamism of Lent, and we prepare ourselves to be changed by this beautiful old friend.
This is how we discover that Lent is nothing other than an experience of God’s love, a journey toward God’s love—because Lent is ultimately a study of the cross, a preparation for the cross, a meditation on the cross. When we look upon Jesus Christ and him crucified, when we look upon the cross, we see the kind of love he has for us—sacrificial love, merciful love, unconditional love, divine love, real love. It is on the cross that God’s love for us is blatantly displayed. The cross is not a tragic display meant to elicit guilty feelings. It is a brazen show of the burning love of God. This is how God makes a new creation, and the new creation is you.
More than a Glance
Do you remember the small detail in Luke’s Gospel about Jesus looking at Peter? At the Last Supper, Peter had promised Jesus that he would not leave his side; that he was ready to go with him to prison, or even to death. Of course, we know what actually happened. Peter denied even knowing Jesus—not once, but three times. After his third denial, Luke tells us that the Lord, standing bound across the courtyard of the high priest, “turned and looked at Peter” (22:61).
I remember reading this story as a young person, probably as a teenager. It was the first time I had really noticed the detail of this look of Jesus, and I thought, Wow, that must have been some look. Peter must have felt really guilty. Not that I thought Jesus was giving Peter dirty looks—but I imagined it was a very sad look, with a touch of I-told-you-so.
It was later in my life that I began to think differently. I realized what could be communicated by a loving glance. I realized for Luke, the compassionate Evangelist, to include this small detail, there must have been more compassion and love communicated in that glance of Christ than words could relate.
This glance cast upon Peter foreshadows the testimony of the cross—the man who is wronged but bears no ill will, the violated one who forgives his attackers, the victim who retains the power because of his love. Just as Jesus glanced at Peter across the courtyard of the high priest, from the cross Jesus looks upon us—who wrong him, who violate and attack—and in this glance, the crucified one communicates more love than could ever be spoken with words.
Lent is a study of the cross, but not because the cross is a sad or guilt-inducing place. The cross is the place of God’s triumph, love’s triumph. From the cross, Jesus speaks words of love to each of us. We stand at the foot of the cross not because we need to feel guilty, but because we need to accept that love. Yes, we are sinners! Yes, we are broken!
But he didn’t die for us because we are perfect and we deserve it. In Jesus’ own words, he died for us because we are his friends. “No one has greater love than this,” he said, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13).
A Friend of Sinners Like Us
The fact that God is friends with sinners is a little bit hard to wrap our minds around. It is not what we expect, and it is certainly not what those around Jesus expected. Throughout the Gospels, we read accounts of Jesus associating with sinners—a shocking practice that caused a lot of grumbling and complaining: “The Pharisees and their scribes complained to his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’” (Lk 5:30); “The Pharisee . . . said to himself, ‘If this man [Jesus] were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner’” (Lk 7:39); and “The Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (Lk 15:2).
There are many other examples in the Gospels. This man cannot possibly be the Messiah—he certainly cannot be divine—he eats with sinners, he allows them to touch him, he appears to be friends with them!
Strangely enough, the very fact that we are sinners makes us eligible to be friends with Jesus. Jesus said, “I have not come to call the righteous . . . but sinners” (Lk 5:32). So, if we consider ourselves sinners, he came for us. If we are sinners, we need him, we can be in relationship with him, we can accept the healing love Jesus offers, we can even be called “friends of God.” But, if we already consider ourselves whole and perfect, we do not need anyone. There is no relationship, no savior, no love.
It kind of makes you want to be a sinner, doesn’t it? Fortunately for you, you are one! And so am I. This makes us eligible to receive God’s love. It means Christ didn’t die in vain. It makes us fertile ground for the grace of the cross.
We tend to perceive our sinfulness as the thing that separates us from God—but that is only true when we cling to it. When we give it over to the one on the cross, the friend of sinners, then we are drawn to Christ crucified, united with him in the miracle of forgiveness, encouraged and embraced by his love. The sacrifice of the cross becomes for us a seal of divine friendship.