Lent: A journey, an encounter, and a time of purification

On the Readings for Sunday, March 15, 2020, the Third Sunday of Lent

• Ex 17:3-7
• Psa 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9
• Rom 5:1-2, 5-8
• Jn 4:5-42

Lent is not merely a season, but a journey, an encounter, and a time of purification. Benedict XVI, in his 2011 Lenten Message, focused on these three aspects of Lent, stating, “As she awaits the definitive encounter with her Spouse in the eternal Easter, the Church community, assiduous in prayer and charitable works, intensifies her journey in purifying the spirit, so as to draw more abundantly from the Mystery of Redemption the new life in Christ the Lord …”

Today’s readings reveal the purpose of this journey, the meaning of this encounter, and the reason for this purification.

The Israelites, liberated from slavery in Egypt and save by the miraculous passage through the Red Sea, grumbled against Moses. Their anger toward Moses, who had been chosen by God to free them, had erupted after a short time in desert: “But you had to lead us into this desert to make the whole community die of famine!” (Ex 16:3). They become perversely nostalgic about their former slavery, saying, “Why did you ever make us leave Egypt?” (Ex 17:3). Because they lacked faith in God, they longed for the false security of chains and subjection. Faltering in the journey toward the promised land, they tested God.

Likewise, Lent can reveal to us the fragility of our faith, the frailty of our hope, the feebleness of our love. We might be tempted to blame God for our struggles with sin; worse, we may long for the comfort of sinful habits. It may seem easier to return to the slavery we know than to journey in faith toward the kingdom of God.

But in the midst of fasting from food and other temporal things, God provides sustenance. He is the Rock from which issues the gift of living water. The Samaritan woman encountered and tasted this water, of course, when she spoke with a mysterious Jewish man at Jacob’s well. Her encounter is a turning point, but it does not come easily or without questions. The paradox in the encounter is that while the woman thinks Jesus is thirsty for ordinary water, he really thirsts to give her supernatural life. For, as St. Augustine observed, Jesus “had not asked for the kind of water that she herself had understood, but … he himself was thirsty for her trust and was desirous of giving the Holy Spirit to her in her own thirst…”

Slowly, however, she began to realize that Jesus was inviting her to begin a new life, free from sin and selfishness. Sitting alone with Christ, looking upon his face and hearing his words, she began to be transformed. The process of repentance and conversion commenced, until she was able to give testimony to her neighbors of her encounter.

Like the Samaritan woman, we need to encounter Jesus, to look upon his face, to hear his words. “In that woman, then, let us hear ourselves,” wrote Augustine, “and in her acknowledge ourselves, and in her give thanks to God for ourselves.”

This thanksgiving comes from recognizing and embracing the gift of purification and holiness. This is the supernatural gift of justification, which is the restoration of communion with God, through his grace and mercy. “Since we have been justified by faith,” wrote St. Paul to the Romans, “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…” This access to God is by faith, which is accompanied by the surety of hope and the outpouring of God’s live into our hearts. The three virtues of faith, hope, and love “dispose Christians to live in a relationship with the Holy Trinity. They have God for their origin, their motive, and their object—God known by faith, God hoped in and loved for his own sake” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1840).

Lent, as Benedict XVI explained, is “a journey of conversion towards Easter” that causes us to “rediscover our Baptism”, through which we were transformed into children of God by water and the Holy Spirit.

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the March 27, 2011, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1233 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.

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