by Fr. Bill Nordenbrock, C.PP.S.
“So, what are you going to do for Lent?”
That is not a question that I hear as often these days, but there was a time when that was not an unusual conversation starter for Catholics as Lent approached. Sort of like asking someone if they made any New Year’s resolutions; it was an indicator that Catholics took seriously the possibility that Lent could be a time of renewal and personal transformation.
When I was younger, the answer that nearly everyone gave to that question was about making sacrifices and giving something up. Acts of penance are still part of the recommended observance, although often in current teaching the suggestion is that penance be combined with the giving of alms, transforming the foregoing of dessert from a mere diet into a religious observance.
Lent is also a liturgical season which has a particular invitation to reflect on reconciliation. Mostly, the concern is for sinners to be reconciled with God and not so much a concern for sinners to be reconciled with each other. In a ministry of reconciliation, it is important to maintain the connection between the two. One helpful image is found in the cross where both the horizontal and vertical dimensions are essential. When we link acts of penance with the giving of alms, we are making that connection. When we are motivated by a realization that our over consumption is at the expense of others, then penance and alms giving is act of solidarity with the poor and can be personally transforming.
For many, “going to confession” is also a part of the plan for Lent. We celebrate the sacrament, and we ask for a “fresh start,” with the hope that the grace of the sacrament will help us to overcome those sinful tendencies that have brought us to the sacrament. That sacrament takes on amplified meaning when the desire for forgiveness flows out of a sincere desire to be and live differently going forward. Then the sacrament can be a transforming act of grace.
The essential connection between horizontal and vertical dimensions of reconciliation are most clearly articulated in St. Paul’s words given to the community in Corinth.
This means that if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation. The old order has passed away; now all is new! All this has been done by God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. I mean that God, in Christ, was reconciling the world to himself, not counting humankind’s transgression against them, and that he has entrusted the message of reconciliation to us. This makes us ambassadors for Christ, God as it were appealing through us. (2 Cor 5:17-20a)
Above all, we need to rejoice in the gift of reconciliation given to us, but like all gifts that God bestows on us, that gift becomes a commission. God makes “re-gifting” a command. St. Paul heard faithfully God’s command: I reconcile you and now you become my ambassador and spread this gift throughout the world. And St. Paul wanted his readers to know that they have been given the same gift and commission.
When I celebrate the sacrament of confession, as one confessing or as a confessor with others, I try to share the truth of reconciliation as both a gift and a commission. When we go to confession, we celebrate very well the first part, that God has forgiven us, but it takes a conscious effort to include the second part of the God’s work into the sacrament. As I leave the confession giving thanks to God for the sacrament, my thoughts should be: God has forgiven me – who do I need to forgive? God has reconciled me – where does God send me as an ambassador for Christ?
Precious Blood people should hear the invitation to reflect on reconciliation during Lent. Not just to come to a greater understanding of this aspect of our charism, but to allow our Lenten observances to help transform us into a reconciling presence. So as this season begins, the question to ask might be: How will Lent be a time when I journey deeper into our charism? How can Lent be a time to more fully embody our charism?
In the ministry of reconciliation, we have learned that an ambassador of Christ proclaiming the message of reconciliation must be radically hospitable and skillful in the practice of accompaniment.
Radical hospitality is about lovingly making room to receive people as they are, warts and all. Sometimes that is by offering a welcoming physical space, but in the ministry of reconciliation is it more often about creating the emotional space for people to be welcomed without judgement. Are we willing to welcome into our life and “space” those who are not like us? Can those of different ethnicity or nation of origin find in a us a place where they are safe and can be expressive of their cultural identity? Real hospitality is dependent on our willingness to see what is positive in the “other” and to welcome those differences, recognizing that their giftedness is a gift to us.
During this Lenten season, one sign of the times that demands to be noticed is that polarization is a dominant characteristic in U.S. culture. Seemingly, across the board from politics to religion, dialogue has been replaced by dueling position statements. Perhaps this Lent, as Precious Blood people, we can make a practice of not writing off another’s opinion until we know why they care about their opinion; until we know the value that they are protecting in their opinion. This will require that we are radically hospitable, making space for another by presuming that they are of good intentions and that they are guided by values, values that we may share even if we don’t share their opinion on the matter that is brought to the dialogue.
Lent is a time for renewal and reconciliation, where religious practice can help us to remember and respond to a call for personal transformation. How can your religious practices during this Lent cultivate within you the attitudes and skill that will make you a reconciling presence in the Church and the world?
[This article appeared in the New Wine Press, February 2008. Fr. Nordenbrock welcomes your comments and questions. He can be contacted at email@example.com]