From the Pastor: Repentance and Forgiveness | February 13, 2021 Essay

Feb 9, 2021

The season of Lent begins on Wednesday of this week. For forty days we are invited to take a closer look at ourselves in a way that is different from our usual glimpses in a mirror. For some, it is threatening and easy to avoid, or it is done in a cursory fashion. For others, it is considered an outdated pious practice that merely has the patina of relevance. Most of us, however, are filled with sincere determination, as is evidenced by the number of people who faithfully attend Mass each Ash Wednesday to be marked by the sign of their faith. The perennial challenge is to maintain such determination after the ashes have been washed off.

When I was a young boy, not unlike many of my contemporaries, my objective was to ”give up” candy during Lent. The good nuns at the grammar school knew exactly what to ask of us now that we made fewer trips to the candy store. Mite boxes were provided so we had a place for the coins that we would otherwise have used to buy a Hershey’s bar or a Three Musketeers. A double grace was in store for us because we were helping the less fortunate. Naturally, the temptation to have even one small morsel out of a box of Milk Duds grew stronger and stronger as Lent progressed. And yes, I experienced the guilt of enjoying the whole box (on more than one occasion!). Even in my youth, I could Jesuitically justify my indulgence knowing, or at least hoping, that God would understand and forgive me. Besides, my friends were also falling to the left and right of me in their resolve to go the distance.

Now I am an adult. Giving up something tangible during Lent, like a candy bar or dessert, is a nostalgic memory, akin to a New Year’s resolution. That is not to say that I have given up on Lent. It is just that I have come to understand it in a different way. What exactly does it mean to use these forty days in a self-reflective way, free from whatever it is that gets in the way of that, like a box of Milk Duds? The irony is that taking a closer look at myself usually results in giving up something, of letting go of whatever it is that interferes not only with my observance of Lent, but, more importantly, with my relationship with God, with others, and even with myself.

As a season of repentance and forgiveness, Lent invites us to plumb the depths of our souls and acknowledge with a contrite spirit that we have sinned. Repentance for our sins is not an exercise in shame. It is a moment of grace that leads us closer to God as we identify the ways in which we failed – failed to honor God, failed to respect the dignity of others, failed to respond in love to those in need, failed to tear down barriers of discrimination, failed to protect the innocent, failed to care for the environment. True repentance leads us to contrition, sorrow for our failings, and the firm resolve to let go, to give up the manner in which we have led our lives that separated us from God, from others, and from the persons we are called to be as disciples of Jesus Christ.

The last step in the journey of Lent is to ask for forgiveness. It takes courage to do this. However, once that step is taken we experience the lavishness of God’s love and our love of one another. In surrendering to this love we pray for the grace to give up, be free of, whatever has tempted us to believe and act otherwise. I have come to learn that the reward for going the distance during the season of Lent is far greater than a chocolate caramel morsel from a box of Milk Duds.

— Dennis J. Yesalonia, S.J.