Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

Lent: A spiritual springtime

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

A bishop recently recounted for me a humorous incident that occurred during a Mass he had celebrated. When it came time for the washing of the hands during the preparation of gifts, the altar server informed the bishop that the sacristan had failed to put out the bowl of water and towel.

“That’s OK,” the bishop replied. “We can skip it this time.” Not convinced, the young man objected: “But, Bishop, what about your iniquities?” 

While the priest’s prayer, “Wash me, O Lord, from my iniquities and cleanse me of my sins,” is supposed to be recited silently, the altar server had obviously listened to it often enough to take it to heart.

Lent surely is a season to be cleansed of our sinfulness. But it must be so much more than the washing of our hands of sin, especially given what we understand about sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) observes that sin, an offense against reason, truth and right conscience, is a “failure in genuine love for God and neighbor … (that) wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity” (CCC 1849).

In effect, by sinning we become less than what God has called us to be, and we injure ourselves and our relations with one another. Lent, then, is an invitation to repair the damage sin has done to ourselves and our relationships with God.

This has much to say about how we should approach the Lenten penitential practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. These practices are opportunities to cultivate new growth in the field of our lives. Perhaps this is why the word Lent was chosen as the name for this season. It is a shortened form of the Old English word “lencten,” meaning “springtime.” 

Prayer often involves petitioning God for our needs. In such moments we experience our human poverty, vulnerability and dependence on God.

But prayer is so much more. Turning again to the Catechism, we learn that prayer is where we encounter God’s thirst for us, where we encounter God’s love for us (cf., CCC 2560). This is what happens as Jesus rises from the waters of the Jordan river when John baptizes him. In this prayerful moment he hears the Father say to him, “You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased (Mark 1:11).

We begin to recover who we are, our dignity and our relationships with God and others by setting aside time in our day to let God remind us how much we are loved, how much God thirsts for us. That is the first step to responding to the call in Lent to turn away from sin and make space in our lives for the new growth of our relationships with God and others.

It must begin by listening to God tell us how much God thirsts for us. That is how transformation takes place, allowing us to take up the mission of discipleship with fresh energy and purpose.

My favorite story about the value of fasting is found in the Gospel accounts of the temptations that Jesus experienced as he ended his 40 days in the desert. The devil tempts him to use his power to turn stones into bread. Jesus responds that we do not live on bread alone.

There is a deeper hunger in our lives that define who we are. It is the hunger to be nourishment for others, which Jesus reveals fully at the Last Supper. In the upper room with his disciples on the night before he died, he inverts Satan’s temptation to turn stone into bread by turning bread into his body to be shared.

By fasting, we discover our capacity to live our lives for others and discover our power to allow our lives to be broken and shared. In doing that, we recover our dignity and our inner freedom to rebuild our relationships with God and others.

Finally, when we give alms, we not only help those who receive our charity, but we become aware of how generous God has been with us, along with the value of living in solidarity, rather than competition, with others.

Jesus reveals in his own experience of temptations that the vice of greed rests on the Devil’s lie that God has given all things of the world over to him. The truth is, as Jesus tells us, the Father has given everything over to the Son and the Son will not deny us what we need (Jn 3:35). Almsgiving liberates us from Satan’s deception, the illusion that possessions define our lives, replacing it with the joy that comes in living a life of detachment to the benefit of those in need, thereby recovering our dignity and repairing the harm done by sin.

Yes, the young altar server’s question — “What about your iniquities?” — is good for all of us to ponder during Lent, as long as it leads to a springtime of new growth. Just arranging for a bowl of water and towel won’t do. 



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