Lent Is the Time of Conversion

There comes a time when the Word, the Christian discourse, must be born from our own personal looking at Jesus Christ. It is, in fact, Jesus Christ the Word who is at the center of our Lenten meditation.

If the theme of Advent was that of a global expectation, if the time of Christmas was the announcement of the salvation that has come and begun to manifest itself, the liturgy of Lent is the supreme affirmation of this salvation that has occurred in Jesus Christ—Jesus Christ who is Lord of man, of nature, of the cosmos, of the world, and of its whole history; Jesus Christ in the precise contours of his maturity, in the clear definition of his mission, in his face that is unmistakable, present among all human things. The mature figure of Christ, the new man, is made clear through the power of his newness. A new measure has entered the world, a new proposal has entered life, a measure and a proposal that are so new that the whole of life is played out in accepting this new measure or in sinking under as slaves of the old.

But the measure of the mystery of God is a mature person, a formed personality, who moves as a presence that we cannot flee, through our friendships, our houses, our work environments and interests, who personally confronts each of us. The entirety of faith is here: all of faith is in the face we take on, in the gaze we bring to this Person, in the reaction that we have to his presence . . . The child Jesus has grown up, the light of Epiphany now imposes itself on the streets, a light which responds to, which opposes itself to the expression of human affirmation in politics, in the common mentality, and in power.

Let us ask ourselves if we find ourselves in front of this figure, this reality, this person, if this You is in us, if this You invades our personality, if this You goes to our depths as a direction, as understanding, will, desire, love, if our life is this love. Otherwise, we are standing on the flesh, and “all flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of the field; the grass withers, and the flower wilts; but the word of the Lord remains forever” (1 Pet 1:24-25). This Word is not a discourse—it is a real person, a man, Jesus Christ.

Let us bring out the awareness of this presence from the depth of the fog, from misunderstanding, from all the dissonance. Let us recollect ourselves in front of the One to whom our life is a response, who is the foundation, the meaning of our personal responsibility. We must quickly grasp once again this You whose presence the Gospels of Lent bring to our inner eye, to our imagination, making it easier to recognize the miracle of our life. The miracle of this presence is not given to those who do not recognize him as their own, sufficient to define the very meaning, the very substance of life, to become their very name (1 Pet 2:6-8).

This You and this presence signal a change in our life. Therefore, Lent is the time of conversion. It is no longer a vague expectation, no longer a joy without responsibility because the announcement has just been given, of wonder at its initial manifestation. In front of this mature, strong manifestation—which tells us the scope for which he came (“Before Abraham was, I AM” [ John 8:58])—in front of this mature presence that no longer hides the aims for which he came: to possess our lives—we must respond (Rom 8:2-23).

The first fundamental change that Lent brings, that the renewed awareness of this You should produce in our life, is that our life becomes a life of faith, becomes just—that is, lives by faith. The time of God will enrich the time that passes—the time that becomes the time of faith will enrich our soul and comfort it, will make it always stronger, console it, make it fuller and more capable of joy. “And those he predestined he also called; and those he called he also justified; and those he justified he also glorified” (Rom 8:30).

In short, it is a deep, radical change; it is holiness of life. Lent is the time to change the criterion of value, the time of penitence. All the miracles of Lent were done to change people. The miracle of the fact that Jesus Christ revealed himself in his mature personality, to propose himself and attract our mature personality, aims to invade and transform us in him.

This is the miracle by which others can glorify the Lord, the miracle by which people can understand that God has visited us, visits us: our transformation, our change. A change in us generates a place. The mature Christ, the newness of life that he brings, has created a new place, a new structure. And at the same time this new structure that our change produces becomes the place of the Spirit, becomes the objectivization of the power of the Spirit, as the Lord has done with the Church. “Since you have purified yourselves by obedience to the truth for sincere mutual love, love one another intensely from a pure heart. You have been born anew, not from perishable but from imperishable seed, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet 1:22-23).

God directs us to a new urgency of life: that our change may create a structure, because only this reveals him as true, this creation not from a perishable seed, not from human will, not from the will of our own program, not from the will of our own refuge, not from the will of the one who flees from the earthly situation in which he has been placed to create his own earthly situation. “Not from perishable but from imperishable seed, through the living and abiding word of God”—from being attracted, from having heard this Word, from this mature and strong Person who changes things (as with the Samaritan woman), which changes the man born blind, which changes death into life, which dominates things because “before Abraham was, I AM.” I was there two thousand years ago, I am here now to encounter you, to call you, to sustain you. I want you.

Let us think again about the mature Jesus, the one who claims us, the one of whom the Gospels of Lent speak. Let us think again about the change he brings: first of all a radical faith, from which we are born, and the hope that is a steadfast aspiration, and the charity that creates objective, new structures. This structure which is a miracle to all men, and first of all to us, because the Lord has visited and visits the world through us. And let us remind ourselves that the clearest action of this conversion in charity is obedience in its deepest, widest aspect, an obedience born not from a perishable seed, or for some other reason, but from an imperishable seed. “Behold, I am laying a stone in Zion, a cornerstone, chosen and precious, and whoever believes in it shall not be put to shame” (1 Pet 2:6).

Because the cornerstone without what rests on it—without the connection to him—will remain a stumbling block. For us, Jesus Christ can remain only a stumbling block if he does not become the one in whom all our life is supported. It is the maturity of our person that corresponds, responds, adheres to the maturity of his person. “Although you have not seen him you love him; even though you do not see him now yet believe in him, you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, as you attain the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Pet 1:8).

The true theme of life has to do with our personhood. Everything begins from and returns there: the maturity of our person is the adhesion that we give to Jesus Christ in Lent. This is the time when the Lord gathers us, saves us through the Word made flesh, who has become one of us. The liturgical year is the story of the Word of God in our life; Lent is the time of the Word of God that walks within the world.

But what other path can we walk with intelligence and freedom of heart if not the path that is clear and certain of its goal? Otherwise, it would be a place of violence. This is, in fact, the position of the person who seeks to bring salvation to the world through study, analysis, her own strength. There is no clear and certain path if the ultimate image of this path is not a gift, a grace. There would only be the violent attempt to impose a goal.

The Christian path is often not clear and intelligent in us and is, instead, somehow unruly and resistant, obscure and almost gloomy, unsatisfied, because our personality is not dominated, invested, determined in its imagination, in its judgment, and in its heart by the “last day,” by the end. Love for the second coming, love for the end of the world, love for the final manifestation—about which Saint Paul speaks in chapter 8 of the Letter to the Romans—has a particular name: hope. Christian hope is the certainty of the final outcome, the certainty in which we live our whole lives as love for a certain future. “The end of all things is at hand. Therefore, be serious and sober in prayer” (1 Pet 4:7).

Prayer is the awareness of reality in its truth, and the truth of reality is Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, in whom all things consist, because “the Father has given everything into his hands and, without him, nothing came into being” (John 3:35; 1:3). Prayer is, therefore, the awareness of the ultimate truth of things, Jesus Christ (“God the tenacious consistency of things”), and the truth of Christ will be manifested at his return, when everything will be fulfilled. “I tell you, brothers, the time is running out. From now on, let those having wives act as not having them, those weeping as not weeping, those rejoicing as not rejoicing, those buying as not owning, those using the world as not using it fully. For the world in its present form is passing away” (1 Cor 7:29-31).

The sense of his coming, of the final manifestation, should become the determining content of our awareness, because at his return we will be fully ourselves: “his return” is the coming to being of “ourselves.” Therefore, the Saints aspired to see him. They longed for death, just like each of us links our good or bad mood to the hope of certain events, because our awareness is dominated by the events to which we aspire, by the imagination of the future we hypothesize.

The sign of how much the desire for his coming dominates in us is our sense of the time that passes quickly, the feeling of the ephemeral, of the provisional. This sense of the brevity of time brings about a cheerful recognition of the true equality of everything: to be married or not is the same thing. All things are equal because the consistency of them is not in the form but in their being a step toward his arrival, toward the Event. The consistency of each thing is in its final manifestation.

This is not a flattening or a monotony, though, because if one is married and the other is not, if one cries and another does not, all of it has to do with the design of the Father. This is the true equality: everything consists in what will come and therefore in the relationship of what exists to this coming.

To the cheerful sense of the brevity of time corresponds, as a corollary, the profound absence of worry, of anxiety. Anxiety and worry derive from the relationship of our own project to what must be done to bring about that project. A characteristic of worry and anxiety is the ease with which we compare ourselves with the other, from which come envy, jealousy, resentment.

During Lent, the first aspect of conversion, the mea culpa, the first gesture of contrition, should be placing ourselves in front of the desire for his final coming. No other attitude, by its nature, breaks out into a cry, into the pure prayer, “Come.” This is so true that the Book of Revelation ends by saying “Come,” and the first prayer of the early Christians is “Come” (Rev 22:17-20).

Moreover, this is the only attitude that makes us abandon everything, because, even though death still brings a sense of fear, it is in this fear that we need to abandon ourselves. We cannot become a total aspiration “for him who comes” if not through love. Therefore, to forget everything is to have everything transformed into desire for him.

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us. For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God (Rom 8:18-21).

We are dealing with a different anthropology, of a human form radically different, even if it lives in the flesh, than all other men (“insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God” [Gal 2:20]).

We cannot in fact pronounce the word “liberation” without feeling and trembling before the true value of this word: the desire for the second coming of Christ.

We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance (Rom 8:22-25).

This last word summarizes the ethic, the description of human behavior from the point of view of the relationship with reality, time and space, things and people, for men who live this faith in his return and walk spe erecti [upright with hope]. What does it mean that the time is short and yet we are cheerful, what does it mean that all things are equal because their consistence is in his coming, if not that life is governed by patience?

True patience is full of profound cheer and does not get worried: “By your perseverance you will secure your lives” (Luke 21:19). Patience, therefore, is the force of a tension toward his return; as Saint Catherine said, it is born from a cry: “The truth is like the light that is silent when it is time to be silent and, being silent, shouts with the shout of patience.” How does the Bible describe the second coming, the final manifestation of the Lord?

If Lent is the Word of God that walks in the world, then the last day will be that to which the Lenten journey leads: Easter. To know the terminology with which the Bible reveals the ultimate fulfillment of things means to go deeper into perceiving how the Lord—who speaks to us in the history of his Revelation—sees the relationship between our life and that day. To connect the relationship between our journey and that ultimate moment means to live a life dominated by the idea of the end. and living with the end in mind is the most synthetic and recapitulatory aspect of conversion. True contrition, in fact, is completely dominated by that final event.

The biblical terminology speaks of “fulfillment of the promises.” The Hebrew story was the story of the promise, and the life of the Jewish people was the life of a promise. This unique story of the Jewish people was a sign that God had created for all of humanity, because man had been created as a promise, and human history is the story of this promise. For this reason, in the Acts of the Apostles, when Saint Paul makes his speech to the Athenians, he says:

The God who made the world and all that is in it, the Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands because he needs anything. Rather it is he who gives to everyone life and breath and everything. he made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and he fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions, so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any one of us (Acts 17:24-27).

The movement of the human story, the story of civilization, has one unique aim: to seek God, because only he is the meaning of existence. The fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham is Jesus Christ, and he will reveal that he is the answer to the promises in a complete way, unequivocally, manifestly, at his second coming. In the Letter to the Galatians, Saint Paul says:

“For through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendant, heirs according to the promise (3:26-29).

In chapter 15 of the Letter to the Romans (8-12), Saint Paul affirms:

For I say that Christ became a minister of the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, to confirm the promises to the patri- archs, but so that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written: "Therefore, I will praise you among the Gentiles and sing praises to your name." And again it says: "Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people." And again: "Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him." And again Isaiah says: "The root of Jesse shall come, raised up to rule the Gentiles; in him shall the Gentiles hope."

Christ, then, is the fulfillment of the promises, and this means that Christ is everything; and not just “in a manner of speaking,” because it is not, first of all, our choice, but the recognition of a reality: “I am the cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22; Matt 21:42). It is a given fact that he is the cornerstone upon which, alone, we can build.

As God is faithful, our word to you is not “yes” and “no.” For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was proclaimed to you by us, Silvanus and Timothy and me, was not “yes” and “no,” but “yes” has been in him. For however many are the promises of God, their Yes is in him; therefore, the Amen from us also goes through him to God for glory. But the one who gives us security with you in Christ and who anointed us is God; he has also put his seal upon us and given the Spirit in our hearts as a first installment (2 Cor 1:18-22).

Christ is defined as the “yes,” but this “amen” has been spoken, is already present among us.

So, if history is nothing other than the mysterious development of this presence until his final triumph, the sensation that we should have of the human time in which we participate is that of being taken by this fact that, like a rushing torrent, is ovewhelming us and carrying us toward the finish line—it is being within what has already happened, it is time as memory.

Saint Paul, speaking of Christian existence, uses the term redimentes tempus, redeeming the time (Eph 5:16). “To redeem” means to make time true, to make its value come to light in time. All the other terms—to liberate, to make useful, constructive, edifying, positive—are analogous. Saint Paul wrote: “Therefore, the ‘amen’ from us also goes through him to God for glory” (2 Cor 1:20).

In the measure in which we are aware of this definitive and total belonging to Jesus Christ, we have the presentiment of living the end, we anticipate what will happen. The feeling or the awareness that defines the Christian is the expectation of his second coming: this alone transfigures our face. Only if we feel ourselves captivated by the “yes” that Christ is—“For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal 3:27)—does the feeling of “Come, Lord” develop itself in us as the dominant feeling of life, and our expression begins to be “amen,” “yes.”

This means that in prosperity or adversity, in the good and the bad, in pain and in joy, one begins to feel that everything is “yes,” that everything is fulfilling itself and non est illis scandalum (Psalm 119:165, Vulgate), there is no longer any scandal. We can have a similar awareness of ourselves only within the fact of Christ, therefore within the communion with all those of whom Christ is made. “But the one who gives us security with you in Christ and who anointed us is God” (2 Cor 1:21)—that is, chosen and consecrated; Jesus is the Christ, the Anointed of God, who has united us with himself, chosen us as part of himself.

But this passage from Saint Paul should say something more to us: “he has also put his seal upon us and given the Spirit in our hearts as a first installment” (2 Cor 1:22). The word seal, in the full awareness of the history of Christian doctrine, signifies a change in our ontology. God is the creator, and when he moves he touches our being. The seal therefore is the outcome of the redemptive and recreative power of God, which transforms our being, and in fact transforms us into his “yes.”

But how does God put his seal upon our hearts? With an event that is recognizable as a gesture in our personal history, with the sacrament. The sacrament is the gesture with which Christ seizes our being and changes it, giving it a different form.

Chapter 3 of the Letter to the Galatians (26-27) says: “For through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ”: you are the beginning of the fulfillment, you are the “yes.” Through the sacrament the “yes” and “amen” which is Christ— the “already present” of the final fulfillment—engages us in our depths. Therefore in the sacrament memory deepens and thus the feeling of his coming becomes ever more powerful and life is transformed. Life in fact is transformed not because we compare our conscience with the moral law but because of these events that happen.

In the sacrament, we are involved in the “already” of Christ, we are involved in the “yes” that is already among us, in the history of this presence that is overwhelming everything, time and space, toward his final manifestation. The sacrament is the gesture with which Christ takes us again and again and brings us always more “within.”

In the last chapter of the Book of Revelation, the word “Come” persists as an aspiration for the beloved and truly marks the physiognomy that should always be ours: but that word is realized in the sacramental gesture, through the infallible awareness of the bride of Christ, the Church.

The sacrament is the gesture with which Christ brings our personality most profoundly into himself. The sacramental life—Penance in particular, which is the second Baptism, and the Eucharist—has as its pale human comparison the example of a person who is distracted and does not recognize the presence of someone he loves, and that beloved person puts a hand on his shoulder saying, “I am here.” It is another world that happens in that moment between those people; it is a new awareness of self, a new consciousness of a relationship with time and with things.

“God has also put his seal upon us and given the Spirit in our hearts as a first installment” (2 Cor 1:22). “He has given the Spirit in our hearts as a first installment” means to have the presentiment of the end, to begin to feel the light of the end. In the sacramental life, more than in any other moment, we have the installment of the Spirit, we begin to understand what is the unity of the world (Rom 8), that all is good, that we are one thing only, that Christ is the Lord.

In the Letter to the Ephesians (6:17), Saint Paul says that the sword of the Spirit is the word of God. We have said that Lent is the Word of God that walks in the world—that is, a sword that cuts (Heb 4:12): the Word of God generates division and conflict. This is the meaning of the word mortification as the law of Christian life. The Word of God is meant to bring life, and yet it cuts and divides: death and resurrection.

The condition of resurrection is death; the condition of life passes through death. In chapter 8 of the Letter to the Romans (verse 2), Saint Paul says: “For the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has freed you from the law of sin and death.” Therefore, there is a contrast, there is an alternative to the Word of God: the law of sin and death.

In chapter 2 of the First Letter to the Corinthians (12-13), Saint Paul says again: “We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the things freely given us by God. And we speak about them not with words taught by human wisdom, but with words taught by the Spirit, describing spiritual realities in spiritual terms.”

Thus, in the Second Letter to the Corinthians (10:3-4), Saint Paul says: “For, although we are in the flesh [among all the things that we do], we do not battle according to the flesh, for the weapons of our battle are not of flesh but are enormously powerful, capable of destroying fortresses.”

The Word of God is a sword because it fights, and if it fights, it wins, because it destroys fortresses, that is, it destroys even the positions that have been built through centuries and millennia, all the way to original sin, in us. It destroys even the positions that constitute the dominant culture, all of our personal and social habits. The Word of God cannot but be felt as a sword of the Spirit, and the Spirit is the one who creates, the one who redeems, the redemptive power of Christ. The Spirit creates, sanctifies, redeems, builds by seeming to demolish, demolishing in fact our human bones, demolishing our human walls.

What is opposed to the Word of God as the sword of the Spirit? Everything in us that tends not to be converted, not to be of Christ, that seeks to be autonomous. Such illusory autonomy can derive from pride or from infidelity, from a lack of faith, from a lack of the sense of the mystery of Christ. Autonomy as self-love would like to put its own reactions as the measure of its actions and, thus, of its relationships. From this come envy, jealousy, fights, recriminations, dissatisfaction, while the criterion should be the event of Christ and the expectation of his return. 

But the true evil root that opposes itself to the sword of the Spirit and does not allow this sword to break us in contrition, the true root is the lack of a sense of the mystery of Christ: history and existence should be valued on the basis of the mystery of Christ and not on the basis of our times and our rhythms—that is, on our demands.

All things are equally fragile: this means that the consistency of all things is a mystery, is his death and resurrection, his second coming. The consistency of things is not in what we make, because the truth of things acts hiddenly, that is, supernaturally. Things are made according to a work that is within, in the depths, in truth.

Autonomy, which derives from infidelity, has a very clear symptom: the gestures of each day, the relationships with people happen outside of the sentiment of the end or the memory of Christ. If our life manages to have some unity, this unity comes from the outside, from the force of will, in a way that is abstract, in the best of cases, moralistic. This effort is exhausting.

Christ accepted from the Father that the redemptive strength he had within him played out slowly and hiddenly through millennia of history, whereas he could have brought it about in a single moment. Christ accepted from the Father that he remain in Palestine, while the people who would have accepted him better were in Tyre and Sidon, in the lands of the pagans; Christ accepted to be crucified in the time fixed by the Father; and so we do not accept the history of Christ if we get scandalized because we do not see in what sense our heavy and opaque concerns have eternal meaning within his coming or within the mystery of his death and resurrection. This is faith: to believe that within what we do there is the mystery of his coming.

If the memory of Christ and the expectation of his coming are in us, and so in everything, the clearness of the transfiguration begins, the presentiment begins, even while remaining opaque and heavy (because it is in this enigma that faith lives). What begins to be felt in the Eucharist begins to be felt in everything that is born from us.

Even if we believe in the second coming of Christ, in the memory of Christ, even if we accept the faith truly, we remain unsatisfied and in a certain inquietude because things are still not like they will be at his coming, things are still not as we would like them to be for our happiness. But Christ came to die—he came, that is, to break through the surface of these things, but he breaks through in a mysterious history.

Things are still heavy and opaque: we cannot expect our peace from the fact that these things change, but from our change we can expect the transfiguration of these things, according to the mysterious design of the Father, in patience. If, at a certain point, our gaze and our heart truly change things, this is a miracle that God does when he wants. In patience the Spirit will not hold back his testimony which is necessary for the faith to be reasonable.

But when one of our actions becomes a miracle—that is, when it is seen as part of the sign of Christ—then we are already detached from it, we see it as small, we no longer are slaves to it, and our happiness does not depend anymore on the outcome itself. Christ died without seeing things change, and thus, each of us is destined to live the same trajectory of Christ and to die as if we have not accomplished anything. If the Father treated the Master like this, he will also treat his disciples like this.

It is normal that the outcome of our actions do not correspond to that aspiration that in a creaturely way we have within, that they do not correspond to the desire for happiness, fullness, satisfaction. It seems like a failure, but it is not; faith makes us understand this and therefore makes us “live together steadfast in Christ and in joy.”

Our faith should become greater, because we should carry the gravity and opacity of things in the certainty that Christ is there and that through these things, just as they are, his second and definitive coming happens (Parousia), his return happens. Things are heavy, but we carry them, because we are made like Christ, the giant who runs the race.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is adapted from Living the Liturgy: A Witness, courtesy of Slant Books, All Rights Reserved.  

Featured Image: Madaba church walls, painting of Jesus preaching, photo by Dosseman; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.


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