On this First Sunday of Lent, 2022, let us attend to the words of St. Augustine: “Anyone who undertakes to praise God and yet will not exalt his mercy above all else, had better keep silent.” This raises the question: Who would do that? Who is qualified to praise God above all for His mercy?
The answer seems obvious. Anyone who needs God’s mercy and who encounters it and is transformed by it will definitely bear witness to His mercy. The lepers and all the infirm whom Jesus healed know by personal experience that His love is efficacious, that He has the power to heal. Like the blind man whom Jesus healed, they can all say, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (Jn 9:25). Amazing grace! Amazing mercy!
The miracles by which Jesus healed so many broken and diseased bodies point to His healing of the soul. He likens Himself to a physician:
And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mt 9:10–13)
Lent is the season for Christ’s disciples to become newly and more deeply aware of their need for the Divine Healer. This means becoming more aware of sin. But this is not an end in itself. It is simply the necessary condition for dealing with reality, for becoming more intensely aware of our need for His mercy, and for seeking Him—even as the sick and sinners sought Him for healing power when He was on earth.
God always has more to give! And the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus proves how serious He is about giving more! But this means that we need to come to terms with our poverty, for our need for that “more” that He wants to give. And this is what Lent is all about.
Let us heed the wise exhortation: “Do not be ashamed to confess your sins, do not struggle against the current of the river.” (Sir 4:26) This was one of the first biblical passages that my children memorized. They were all young competitive swimmers at the time. They knew from experience how difficult it is to swim upstream. In fact, you cannot swim upstream. The most a powerful swimmer can do is to hold his own. But, after a few minutes, his energy will be depleted, and the power of the current will overpower him and take him downstream.
Nothing is more natural—like being carried by the current of a river—than to confess our sins. The effort it takes to avoid that confession exhausts us spiritually. Then we look for distractions and try to avoid the confrontation with sin. Worst of all, deep down we wonder if God really loves us. It’s like keeping some dark secret hidden from someone because you are afraid that if the person finds out he or she might stop loving you. So you hide it. But you are always worried that it might be discovered. So, you live in fear of being found out. This is the most pervasive and debilitating neurosis! Jesus came to heal us from it—precisely by loving us even when we do not think that deserve to be loved!
Who wants to live wondering if God really loves me? But unless we confess our sins, this is what happens. And then we avoid Him—we avoid reading the Bible, praying, examining our conscience. But that is like trying to swim upstream. No wonder our culture is characterized by a deep and pervasive fatigue! It’s no way to live. Not only are we superficial and exhausted, we live in a fundamental insecurity; we are religiously neurotic, wondering if God really loves us.
The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is so powerfully and spiritually therapeutic! Christ died and rose again so that we can know, in advance and with absolute certitude, that God wants to forgive our sins and that He will forgive them—precisely because of His great love and mercy! And when we hear the words of forgiveness that Christ speaks to us through His priests, we know that we have been liberated from the fear that our sins have driven Him away from us—the fear that we are not lovable. The truth about God’s mercy is exactly the opposite. It is precisely because of our sins that He draws close to us, like a doctor who goes in search of those who need to be healed.
Lent is the time to deepen our faith in God’s mercy! Instead of saying, as Peter did, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8), with faith in God’s mercy we boldly and confidently confess our sins because we believe that:
The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. (Psa 34:18)
The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. (Psa 145:18)
He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. (Psa 147:3)
This is why Lenten penance leads to Easter praise of God—above all for His mercy!
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