||This column is the bishop’s communication with the faithful of the Diocese of Madison. Any wider circulation reaches beyond the intention of the bishop.
I’m not certain how it accomplishes this each year, but Lent seems always to surprise me.
I just looked at the calendar and saw that Ash Wednesday is only two weeks away! It seems as though we’ve just finished marking the season of Christmas — with all of the joy and exuberance that that brings.
On the other hand, there’s a part of me that has the sense that we just completed a Lent not so long ago.
And yet, I can recall some of the resolutions that came from my prayer, fasting, and almsgiving last Lent, and I cannot say that I’ve perfected them — or rather that they’ve been made perfect in me — over the past year.
And so it is, this cycle of conversion and reversion continues, and thanks be to God, it comes each year.
The law and Commandments
The readings of this past Sunday are all about the law and the Commandments — not the most popular of themes in our day.
The first reading (SIR 15:15-20) says, “If you choose you can keep the Commandments, they will save you . . . ” The Psalm (PS 119:1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34) says, “Blessed are they who follow the law of Lord!” Keeping the Commandments will save you! And blessed are those who follow the law! What law and what Commandments? God’s!
God has given to His people a law and Commandments and He did so out of love. He gave to Moses the Ten Commandments for their own good and their own salvation, so that they might be blessed. And to make it more specific, God inspired for the Jewish people the whole of the Torah, the law.
To the praise of God, so many faithful Jews (from that time and up through today) followed and follow the law of God.
They recognized in the law and the Commandments God’s desire for their happiness, their beatitude. But so many did not.
Some rejected the commandments of God, preferring instead what they thought would bring them happiness (only to find misery in the end). Others, like the scribes and Pharisees, followed the letter of the law, but did not “seek the Lord with all their heart.”
To both groups of people — those who chose not to follow and those who followed the law without involving their whole hearts — God has spoken His word again. As we know (and as we are reminded in the Second Reading and Gospel of this past weekend) that word is spoken in the Word, Jesus Christ.
God’s wisdom is for those who love him
The Second Reading (1 Cor 2:6-10) speaks of “God’s wisdom, mysterious and hidden . . .”
This wisdom, St. Paul says, is prepared for those who love Him. It is a wisdom that does not come from this world, nor from a simple following of commandments, but rather from loving — loving the One who embodies the Law. It comes from turning our hearts to Christ. It comes from conversion.
This, I believe, has been the call that our Holy Father has been attempting to emphasize — both to those who no longer even attempt to follow God’s law and to those who are tempted to follow with no heart — it is a call to conversion.
Lent calls us to conversion
Pope Francis’ message for Lent this year begins, “Lent is a new beginning, a path leading to the certain goal of Easter, Christ’s victory over death. This season urgently calls us to conversion. Christians are asked to return to God ‘with all their hearts’ (Joel 2:12), to refuse to settle for mediocrity, and to grow in friendship with the Lord.”
The call to conversion is one which is at the heart of our stated diocesan mission, “To ensure that every individual in the Diocese of Madison is graciously invited every day to meet the person of Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, face to face, and be changed by Him,” and it is one that should be at the heart of our lives as followers of Jesus Christ — a call not only to ourselves, but to all those we encounter.
Are we following the law?
It is my presumption that for the most part, those who read this column are tempted not by abandoning the law of God, but by growing lukewarm or lacking in heart in our following of the law.
And so we must challenge ourselves to make certain that it is Jesus Christ to whom our hearts are turned. It is a relationship with Christ, it is a call to love that we are called to conversion.
But, that is not to say that the law and God’s commandments are not important; it is precisely the opposite!
A simple glance at the Gospel readings of this past Sunday (MT 5:17-37) can confirm this. “I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it . . . whoever obeys and teaches these Commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven . . . unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven!”
Converting to Christ
We must convert to Christ! We must follow Him with all our hearts, and minds, and souls. And He whom we follow IS the law enfleshed!
So, we begin with love, with the selfless love of Christ, but to love Christ is to keep His Commandments (JN 14:15). And so, the conversion to which we are called, involves both. And it can be an outstanding point of reflection as we head into Lent.
Inviting others to conversion
With this in mind, I invite each of us not only to undertake a conversion once again, but also to invite others around us toward this conversion of heart and of life.
Are we living a life converted to the Lord of love? Do we spend time each day in communion with Him who has loved us ’til the end? Do we seek to embody His love by witnessing it to those around us? And, is our love for Him real and substantial enough to seek the Lord with all our hearts by following his laws and commandments? With which of His commandments do we struggle most? Where do our hearts still need conversion?
I hope these few questions provide a bit of help as we enter into Lent in the coming weeks.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. May God bless you and your loved ones!
Praised be Jesus Christ!