Cardinal Vincent Nichols explores how Lent invites us to rediscover our call to be holy.
Lent is a holy season and we are invited to explore and discover what it means to be holy. The Old Testament says very simply: ‘Be holy, as I am holy.’ (Leviticus 11:44) and St Peter said in the New: ‘But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, I am holy.’ (1 Peter 1:16). But what does it mean to be holy? The Hebrew word quadosh and Greek haigos literally means ‘set apart.’ We are called to be holy whatever our state in life. We could understand being holy like this: God wants us to be happy; holiness is happiness. Holiness is being, as St Irenaneus once said: ‘The glory of God is a human being, fully human, fully alive.’
Lent invites us to be holy and to explore the essence of our vocation, the call to be saints, to be holy, as God is holy.
This invitation to be holy is found in the first and last pages of the Bible. It was a central teaching of the Second Vatican Council. In the book of Genesis God said to Abraham: ‘Walk before me and be blameless’ (Genesis 17:1). And, the last verse of the Bible assures us of God’s grace available to us so that we can live holy lives: ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen’ (Revelation 22:21).
Vatican II proclaimed: ‘Strengthened by so many and such great means of salvation, all the faithful, whatever their condition or state, are called by the Lord, each in his or her own way – to that perfect holiness by which the Father himself is perfect’ (Lumen Gentium 11).
Lent, then, is a unique opportunity for each of us to understand the call to holiness by entering more deeply into the mystery of our baptism. During Lent we seek the grace and blessing of conversion.
Baptism is the gateway through which we enter the Christian life. Through it we are immersed into the death and resurrection of Jesus. Through baptism we receive every spiritual blessing. We become partakers in the divine nature. On Easter Sunday, renewed and refreshed in body and soul, we renew the reality of baptism and our baptismal promises.
However, we know we are fallen and mortal, wounded by sin. Therefore we walk the highway of holiness only by the light of examination of conscience, repentance and ongoing conversion.
The ashes on our forehead and the ancient disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, are visible signs that we are indeed penitent pilgrims, praying from our hearts: ‘Lord, I am a poor sinner, but you can work the miracle of making me a little better.’
Our goal is that gazing on Christ, we may be renewed and refreshed in faith and grow in holiness. We take heart and courage from St Thérèse of Lisieux who said: ‘Look at his adorable face. Look at his glazed and sunken eyes. Look at his wounds. Look Jesus in the Face. There, you will see how he loves us.’
May God’s mercy flow like mountain streams. May it bring us renewed hope so that we can live holy lives and may it carry us to a joyful celebration of the Risen Lord on Easter Sunday.
Signs of Holiness
Lent is a highway of holiness. Signposts along the way point towards the renewal of our baptismal promises and the joy of Easter Sunday.
The ashes on our foreheads are our pilgrim badge marking us as penitents, poor beggars seeking God’s grace and mercy.
Our prayer is a sign of our hunger and thirst for God.
Our fasting is a sign of sorrow for our sin and an openness to conversion and turning back to God.
Our almsgiving is a sign of gratitude, for we have received mercy, and through generous giving show mercy.
Lent is a time to rediscover the gift of prayer. The saints are distinguished by their life of prayer. From them we learn. St John of the Cross said: ‘Endeavour to remain always in the presence of God, either real or imaginative, in so far as it is permitted by your work’. St Thérèse of Lisieux said: ‘Try to be continuous in prayer, and in the midst of bodily exercises do not leave it. Whether you eat, drink, talk with others, or do anything, always go to God and attach yourself to him.’ St Teresa of Avila said: ‘Prayer is friendly intercourse and frequent solitary converse with him who knows and loves us’. All we need to pray is an open heart, a hunger and thirst to remain in the presence of God.
What is fasting? Fasting is a denial of food and drink. This can mean an intermittent fast or fasting for a longer period. Jesus caused great indignation because he didn’t encourage his disciples to fast; he did however teach about fasting. He taught ‘hidden fasting’ whereby this spiritual discipline is not on show, we don’t draw attention to it. Our heavenly Father sees it, but others do not. Fasting isn’t an end in itself; we fast to rely on God and become more sensitive to the needs of others. ‘No matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great’ (St John Chrysostom).
We don’t tend to use the word almsgiving these days; we think in terms of giving to a registered charity, a fundraising event or the offertory collection. There is a plethora to choose from and no shortage of encouragement to donate to one noble cause or another. We can find ourselves succumbing to a kind of compassion fatigue or worse, an indifference. Almsgiving isn’t just about giving money, it’s much more. It’s about an interior attitude, a disposition of the heart. We are generous because God is generous to us. We give because we have received. Generosity is a Beatitude. Jesus said that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35) and St Paul informed us that God loves a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:7).