In his Angelus message of February 21, Benedict XVI remarked: “Lent is like a long ‘retreat’ in which to re-enter oneself and listen to God’s voice in order to overcome the temptations of the Evil One and to find the truth of our existence.” The Holy Father, as is his wont, has put the mystery of man into just a few words. We are created with an unbreakable openness to God that establishes who we are. This relationship is the very foundation of our existence. The Second Vatican Council taught us that the Church “holds that in her most benign Lord and Master can be found the key, the focal point and the goal of man, as well as of all human history.” (Gaudium et spes, 10) So Lent is about the Truth and the truth of our very existence.
Christ, as the divine Word, embodies the truth of human existence, but this is not always a truth to which we pay much attention. Our openness to God in history grounds the very possibility of our living a just existence. The Holy Father uses “justice” in the sense of the ordering and directing of life so that we fulfill the existence we were given. Sadly however, we can “fill” ourselves with many other things. Hence, first of all in Lent, there is a need for review. Just what exactly are we occupied with?
Benedict notes, for example, that: “Material goods are certainly useful and required – indeed Jesus Himself was concerned to heal the sick, feed the crowds that followed Him, and surely condemns the indifference that even today forces hundreds of millions into death through lack of food, water and medicine – yet ‘distributive’ justice does not render to the human being the totality of his ‘due.’” (Message for Lent, 2010) In a sense distributive justice is “horizontal.” It recognizes certain claims that we do indeed have, but in fact, according to the Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church: “Just as man needs bread, so does man have even more need of God.” There is the vertical dimension of life! This dimension renders authentic life as something more than flat, more than what is under my control, more than what is limited by only what I can imagine. It is the dimension that recognizes the inescapable openness to God in human existence. This is the just life. This is how human life really looks.
Lent is the time to rediscover the justice of life. How? Well, Jesus Christ is a perfect human being. “Perfect” is a good word except that it easily gets distorted in modern culture by notions of someone trying to be like a Stepford wife! Nothing could be more wrong. Instead, let us say that Jesus Christ lives an authentic human life. The pope reminds us of Paul’s words to the Romans: “The justice of God has been manifested through faith in Jesus Christ.” (cf. Rom 3, 21-22) So here is the historical center of Lent.
At the Papal Audience on Ash Wednesday, Benedict explained: “Every day is a favorable moment of grace because every day presses us to give ourselves to Jesus, to trust in him, to abide in him, to share his lifestyle, to learn true love from him, to follow him in the daily fulfillment of the Father’s will, the one great law of life.” We learn from the One who has lived a meaningful life already. Lent is about immersion in the life of Jesus. We follow him all the way through the Cross to the Resurrection. The way that the season is constituted means that we face a different dimension of the life of Christ (and hence of authentic human life) each week. We are faced with taking the glaring challenge of genuine human existence. Does it speak to us? Are we passive observers, or do we open to what Jesus does so that we are fundamentally changed?
There are strong signs of humiliation in Lent, from wearing ashes, to being nailed to the Cross. Speaking of the ashes, Benedict said: “It is essentially an act of humility that means: I recognize myself for what I am, a frail creature, made from earth and destined to return to earth, yet also made in the image of God and destined for him. I am dust, yes, but also beloved, shaped by his love, animated by his vital breath, able to recognize his voice and respond to him. I am free and therefore capable of disobeying him, of giving in to the temptation of pride and self-sufficiency.” (Homily, Ash Wednesday, 2010) This is humility!
Speaking of the Cross, Benedict once said: “This is the truth of Good Friday: on the Cross, the Redeemer has restored to us the dignity that belongs to us, has made us adoptive sons and daughters of God whom he has created in his image and likeness.” (Way of the Cross, Good Friday, 2008) Humility is the virtue of a true relationship to God. And from humility comes the possibility that we will realize more this Lent, than the last, that in our faith we are called to “become” Jesus Christ.