Each and every day, we have the opportunity to be converted, to draw closer to Christ, and to better, and to more fully understand, our Christian responsibility to complete Jesus’ work in our world.
Many years ago, while walking with a friend one Sunday afternoon in San Francisco’s famous Golden Gate Park, I learned a valuable lesson on conversion. As we walked and chatted, a young man, approximately our same age, approached me and asked with great fervor: “Are you saved?” Slightly taken aback by the question, I responded after a brief pause, “Sure, I think I’m saved.” But immediately he responded, “Are you certain?” Again, I hesitated but answered, “Yes, I am a Catholic, and I believe if I live my life properly, I will be saved.” But the young man was persistent: “How do you know? When were you saved? It is essential that you be certain.” By this time I was getting a bit perturbed, but answered, “I cannot tell you a particular date and time; I’ve always tried to live my life as a Catholic.” While it was clear that my answer did not completely satisfy the young man, he left us and went on asking, I suspect, the same question to others in the park.
This incident taught me that conversion is not, for most people, a single event or incident in their life. Certainly, we can point to dramatic one-time conversions. St. Paul was literally transformed instantly when Jesus challenged him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4b). Paul’s conversion, like many other famous people in history, and even people today, was immediate, as it seems was the experience of the young man in the park. However, for most, conversion is a daily process.
The sacred season of Lent challenges us to see conversion in our lives as a daily process. Each and every day, we have the opportunity to be converted, to draw closer to Christ, and to better, and more fully understand, our Christian responsibility to complete Jesus’ work in our world. This daily conversion process challenges us to remove ourselves from the great temptations of the world and seek, in their place, the things of God. Specifically, we need to be converted from our fascination with the three major temptations of power, wealth, and prestige.
These three great temptations, which Satan placed before Jesus (Matthew 4:1-11), are part of daily life in varied ways, whether we be a young person in school, someone who is working in a traditional 8 to 5 job, those who labor at home, or people who are retired. We simply cannot avoid the reality that these temptations are all around us, especially in our very comfortable, first-world, 21st century United States society.
We need to be converted from our desire for power. We live in a world where individual and collective power “talks”; it brings us leverage in life. Intelligent people possess a certain power. People want to be their friends; they want their help to master some complex problem or system. Too often power is used against others; it is utilized to help ourselves rather than others. There is a great temptation to use power to gain access to people, or to force others to do things for us. Power is abused in the office. We can use it to leverage our position for our own benefit almost exclusively. Rank, and the power that comes with it, are given to be utilized for the betterment of the whole. When Satan tempted Jesus with the power to change stones into bread, the Lord responded by saying that such power is inappropriate. Jesus gave all of us a certain amount of power over people, and even ideas, but when such power benefits only ourselves, then we are doing an injustice to God’s plan.
During this Lenten season we need to consider how we use the power we possess. We need to be converted, to be transformed to use our power in proper ways. This means willingly helping others, whether that is with some task, or simply to feel welcome. It means reaching out to those who might be more shy or withdrawn and, in a friendly way, demonstrating they are important. All that is necessary is a friendly “hello,” and really meaning what you say. In business, it is easy to run over those who are weaker, saying to ourselves: “It’s a dog-eat-dog world, the survival of the fittest.” We use this as an excuse to wield power in ways that are inconsistent with our Christian calling.
The temptation to abuse power is complemented by our desire for the things of the world. American society today is dominated by consumerism; the more we have, the more important we believe we are. As the expression goes, “You have to keep up with the Joneses.” We are almost driven as a society to have the latest and greatest of everything. Again, this temptation is felt by all, regardless of our age or status in life. Too often, we seek new clothes with fancy designer labels, when an “ordinary” shirt, dress, or pair of shoes would be more than adequate. Not only do we want every new fancy electronic gadget that comes on the market, but we want the one with the most features, the widest screen, the most power, or the one with the widest range. Having things is certainly not a problem. After all, God gave us the created world for our use. The problem, however, is that too often we don’t use the material world in ways that are helpful to all, or build God’s kingdom in our world. Too often, we simply accumulate things to have them, so that we can appear more important. We say, “Look what I have,” not only by the physical things we possess, but the attitude we express, making certain others know of our material fortune.
Lent provides us with the best opportunity to consider how to use properly our material possessions. We need to understand the difference between what is needed and what is desired. A few moments of thought and sincere reflection about people in other lands, especially the third world, should force us to reconsider our “need” for a new article of clothing, a new electronic gadget, or to spend our money on entertainment. We can redirect our material success toward the needs of others. Some people, because of their position and status in society, have the possibility to make even more fundamental changes in our world. Of course, this is not easy, and the social pressure and competition “to go with the flow” is strong, but that is precisely the challenge that this season of grace presents to us. It is okay to be countercultural; certainly Jesus was countercultural in his day. The Lord did not promise his followers anything, save the very path he trod in life, the one that leads to suffering and death. But, if we persevere, we will find the gift of eternal life that we seek.
Having mastered our desire for power and wealth, Lent also provides the opportunity to be converted from prestige. When Satan took Jesus to the top of the Temple, and suggested he throw himself off, knowing the Angels would save him, the Lord immediately responded by rejecting the prestige that the opportunity offered. Certainly, Jesus of Nazareth was the premier person of prestige in all history, but he did not seek status. Rather, he was prestigious because of the good works he did. We, on the other hand, seek prestige. We want people to know how important we are. American society is filled with people who seek attention. Athletes who make millions of dollars are seemingly not content with the money alone; they must in some overt way proclaim to the world how great they are, even though what they do is precisely their job. Again, many personalities, especially from the worlds of television and film, seek our attention. They want to be prestigious; it is the fuel that drives their lives.
Christians are called to be countercultural, we must seek the less traveled route, the narrow gate, as Jesus describes it, which leads to life (Matthew 7:13-14). In the Gospel (Luke 14:7-11), Jesus suggests humility is more important than prestige. He told his disciples and others who heard his words, if you are invited for dinner, do not sit in the place of honor. It may be the case that a person of greater prestige than you has also been invited, and you will be told by your host to move to a lower place. Rather, Jesus said, when you are invited, go sit in the lowest place, and you may be asked by your host to move higher. Jesus concludes, saying, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:11). Christians are called to do their best because it is the right thing to do. There is no need to be rewarded for doing what is proper. Any satisfaction, that is, our personal prestige, must be found in our knowledge of a job well done. As Jesus says, “When you have done all that you have been ordered to do, say: ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” (Luke 17:10).
While the season of Lent calls us to be converted from the three great temptations of power, wealth, and prestige, it also calls us to be converted toward the four great works: penance, fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. All of these works are positive; they require something from us.
First, we need to be converted to the need for penance. Simply put, we need to seek reconciliation, with ourselves, others, and God. During Lent, we should make it a point to stop blaming ourselves for failures of the past. Too often, we accuse ourselves of being inadequate, less than what we believe we ought to be. While certainly we must always strive to improve our lives, many are exceedingly harsh on themselves. There is no need for this. Young people are highly susceptible to this problem, because they are always comparing themselves with others. We must accept who we are, the person God created. We are all made in the image and likeness of God. As the old bumper sticker said, “God doesn’t make any junk.” We need to forgive ourselves, others, and be forgiven. Too often, we carry around past problems and burdens, especially memories of people who have hurt us; we are weighed down and unable to move. Lent is the perfect time to cut the ties, and let ourselves go free. Jesus understood this, exclaiming to an assembled crowd concerning his friend Lazarus, “Unbind him and let him go” (John 11:44b). We need to let go of our own mistakes as well. Perhaps, most importantly, Lent is the perfect opportunity to seek reconciliation in a formal way. Since we are all sinners, we need God’s forgiveness. The Church provides the wonderful sacrament of penance, but unfortunately, few avail themselves of this wonderful opportunity. We need to do precisely what the prophet Joel states: “Yet, even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, … return to the Lord your God” (Joel 2:12a, 13b).
Next, Lent provides us with the perfect opportunity to be converted to greater charity, or as it is commonly known, almsgiving. This is the positive virtue that contrasts our conversion away from wealth. Almsgiving is both spiritual and material. Christians must seek to live a life of greater simplicity; we must avoid greed. As the expression goes, “Live simply so others may simply live.” Such an attitude will lead to greater sharing of God’s beneficence with those who possess little, or none of the goods of the world. We can, and must, reach out to others; it is a basic virtue of the Christian life.
This great season of grace calls us to fast. There is no need to starve ourselves, but, on the other hand, we could certainly eat less. Can we have solidarity with those millions of people in the world who are hungry every day of their lives? The idea is not simply to abstain from a particular food or product, but by doing so to consider why such inequalities in food, shelter, health care, and other basic human necessities exist in our world. We can also consider “fasting” by removing ourselves from practices or habits that are irksome to many, and harmful to our health.
Lent is the time to renew our relationship with God through prayer. We know of our need to pray, both to speak, and to listen to God. We are all very busy people and, seemingly, always find some excuse why we cannot pray, why we cannot take sufficient time to be in conversation with the source of our life. But, we all need to pray and, as St. Paul says, to do so at all times (Colossians 4:2). Children can consider praying the Rosary, spending time reading the Bible, or making an effort to think of others in their daily activities. Adults can participate in the same activities, but might add daily Mass, an activity which many follow during this sacred season. In short, we need to take the time that is necessary to be in communication with our God. We might not see tangible, nor immediate results from our time in prayer, but God listens to our requests, and speaks to us, generally in the silence of our hearts. However, we must be willing to listen so as to be able to know what God’s message is for us.
Lent is a time to be converted, an opportunity to be transformed away from the great temptations of the world—power, wealth, and prestige—and to be converted toward our need to fast, be reconciled, give alms, and pray. If we, as individuals and as a community, can make this season of grace a time of our personal and collective conversion, then our own lives, and those of the community of faith, will be made better, and we will be properly prepared to celebrate the Paschal Mystery of our faith, the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.