Like many meaningful journeys, the Lenten path to holiness is fraught with challenges and opportunities. We can readily note, for instance, the ephemeral nature of the Ash Wednesday mark on our foreheads, disappearing within a few hours. Similarly, our intentions to relinquish some favorite nourishment in fasting can easily find rationalizations and excuses as to why it should be otherwise. And the fervor to remain prayerful and faithful to our almsgiving does not always live up to what we envisioned.
The point of highlighting these failed attempts, however, is not to present Lent as a pessimistic or unrealistic spiritual practice that we put ourselves through each year. On the contrary, we know how important this spiritual practice is for us, especially in connection to humility. The fact that we may fall short of our intentions and aspirations does not minimize the opportunity to grow spiritually. In fact, we know from our faith how important it is to remain hopeful amid the trials and challenges we face.
Among the most hopeful signs that accompany our yearly Lenten experience is precisely knowing that we are not alone in the journey. At times, the encouraging words we need come from close family members and friends who know us well and often serve as our cheerleaders along the way. And, while it may be true that our social situations do not always support our efforts, we can point to the cloud of holy men and women whose examples and inspiration keep us walking forward in trust: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfector of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
What these saints teach us, then, is that our hope and optimism come from knowing that we are not expected to walk our Lenten path depending solely on our abilities and devices. The cruciform ashes on our foreheads, the call to sustained prayer, thoughtful fasting and generous almsgiving already point the way forward and remind us that we have been given the grace to persevere. It is by keeping our gaze on Jesus and His work in us that our Lenten journey finds its true perfection and proper cadence. Indeed, the preparation, endurance and grace we need is rooted in the community of faith and in Christ who sustains us.
More to the point, it is the Spirit dwelling in us that provides us with all that we need. Because of the Spirit, we can recognize the feebleness and limits of our human nature and not be discouraged. Similarly, the Spirit of truth helps us see how much God’s mercy is present to us, making it possible for us to find our way with endurance and conviction: “But you are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you … If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through the Spirit dwelling in you” (Romans 8:8-11).
Let us continue our Lenten walk by placing our trust in Christ Jesus. And in our journey together, let us remember that the shortfalls we may encounter along the way, the brokenness and sin that we may experience can never take away the richness given to us in Christ: “With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption” (Psalm 130).