Lent: Limitations and Forgiveness
With the temperature reading 4° above zero, I recently set out in the early morning for Avon High School in Avon, Connecticut. I had been invited by a friend and member of the faculty to be on a panel consisting of a rabbi from West Hartford, a lawyer from Avon High School, and myself to discuss the nature of forgiveness. About half of the high school’s senior class was present and they had all taken my friend’s course on Universal Human Rights.
Each panelist gave a brief presentation on their views of forgiveness. For Christians, forgiveness is the very heart of the Gospel, Jesus’s primary message. For Catholics, God’s forgiveness for our sins comes after we have promised three things: to confess our sins, to do penance, and to amend our lives. These three actions open us to receive God’s forgiveness.
After the presentations, students asked us questions. One student asked a very difficult one: “How, in the light of so many violations of human rights during these past years, can one forgive?” How can we answer that question? We can pray that we can reflect back to others the mercy and forgiveness God gives to each of us.
This past week, I said the noon Ash Wednesday Mass in the Egan Chapel. At the Mass I received ashes on my own forehead and, with help from our student ministers, I placed ashes on the foreheads of the hundreds of believers who came to the Mass to begin their observance of Lent. As each person came forward, I repeated the words of the Book of Genesis: “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return;” or the words from the Gospel of Mark: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”
The placing of ashes on our forehead is the outward expression of that first promise “to confess our sins,” a mark acknowledging that we know to Whom we belong. The day is one of fasting, abstinence from meat, and repentance—of contemplating one's transgressions. During Lent we confront the limitations of our human existence and admit to ourselves that we are morally imperfect and have much to improve upon, and we are physically imperfect and must prepare for that time when this life will end. These are serious and not always comfortable thoughts.
With God’s grace, solemn times are interspersed with joyous ones. A few days before the panel on forgiveness, on a glorious Sunday morning in Cheshire, Conn., at St. John Becket Church, I had the privilege of baptizing little Margaret Ann, the daughter of Jenna (LoGiudice) ’06 and Michael Catanese ’04. Both families—even a great-grandmother—were present, and Baby Maggie could not have been better behaved. As I poured holy water on her forehead and looked upon her in all of her magnificent innocence, I couldn’t help but think how just a few weeks later, I would be placing ashes on the foreheads of so many of us who had lost that youthful innocence and now hoped to regain it.
We enter this world looking so much like those children of God that we were meant to be. Throughout Lent, let us pray that all of us can begin to regain that God-like innocence as we confess our sins, do penance, and amend our lives. AMEN.
Join us in Boston as Fr. Allen celebrates a Lenten Mass on Thursday, March 21, at The Paulist Center.