St. Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises, wrote that “Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God, our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.” The season of Lent helps us remember that Heaven is our goal, and our time on earth a transitory trial. On Ash Wednesday, this ephemeral quality of earthly life is driven home when the priest makes the sign of the cross with ashes on one’s forehead and says “Remember man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”
Ashes, in the Bible, are usually a sign of repentance and mourning. The ashes on Ash Wednesday are a sign that we are beginning a period of mourning and repentance for our sins and the sins of others. The Sign of the Cross on our foreheads reminds us that we have been redeemed through Christ’s death on the Cross.
Acts of penance performed during Lent, such as prayer, fasting, and acts of charity or mortification, are means by which we atone for our own sins, or those committed by others, and turn our hearts to God. These acts also serve to strengthen one’s will, thereby helping one to fight concupiscence, so that one might more faithfully follow Christ and not “go with the flow” of a culture that ever seeks to redefine evil as good and good as evil.
Jesus said “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me… For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but suffers the loss of his own soul?” (Mat 16:24-26) Jesus told us that He is “the way” to eternal life (John 14:6), and showed us that His way is the Way of the Cross: we must expect humiliation and suffering. Lent can help us strengthen our wills for that purpose.
The late Fr. John Hardon, S.J., made suggestions on how we might more closely follow Jesus’ command:
Spirit of the Lenten Season (by Rev. John Hardon, S.J.)
There are two guiding principles for the observance of Lent. During this season, the faithful are to grow in their love of Jesus Crucified, and they are to practice extra penance for their own and other people's sins. Both aspects of Lent deserve some explanation.
Love of Jesus Crucified. The spirit of Lent is the spirit of Christ Crucified. Therefore, whatever enables us to better understand Christ's Passion and Death, and deepens our responsive love for His great love toward us should be fostered during the Lenten season. Some recommendations:
Meditation on the Gospel narratives of Christ's Passion.
Spiritual reading of books like Goodier's Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Abbot Marmion's The Way of the Cross, Edward Leen's Why the Cross?, Fulton Sheen's Seven Words on the Cross.
Recitation of prayers like Soul of Christ Sanctify Me.
Besides making the daily Way of the Cross, encouraging others to make the Stations at least on Fridays during Lent.
Having some symbol of Christ's Passion, like the crucifix or picture of the crucifix within easy eye vision to remind us of the Passion at odd moments of the day.
Having some short aspiration which is recited (at least mentally) a few times during the day, like, "My Jesus Crucified," or "Heart of Jesus, obedient unto death, have mercy on us."
Occasionally reciting the Litany of the Precious Blood.
Spending some extra time before the Blessed Sacrament, asking Our Lord to grow in the understanding of His continued Passion now in the Church, which is His Mystical Body on earth!
Making an occasional entry into one's spiritual journal about, "How much the Passion of Christ means to me."
Reparation for Sin. In practicing penance, we should keep in mind that there are two levels of reparation we are to practice, for our own and other people's sins. We are to expiate the guilt incurred by failing in one's love for God. And we are to repair the harm done by disobeying the will of God.
On the first level, our penance should be the practice of a deeper and more generous love for God
By making acts of divine love.
By doing our ordinary work with more selfless love for God.
By putting our heart more sincerely into whatever we are doing, and periodically telling our Lord we are doing it out of love for Him.
By deciding before Lent, what form(s) of charity I will practice towards those with whom I live or work. There is no more pleasing love of God, as expiation, than the selfless love of others whom God puts into my daily life.
By going through the spiritual and corporal works or mercy, and selecting one or more on which I wish to concentrate during Lent, as my form of penance-as-love, offered to the loving but offended God.
On the second level, our penance should strive to endure some pain in order to expiate the sinful pleasure that is always the substance of sin. This can take on a variety of forms, and no two people are the same in this matter. The following are merely examples.
More frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance during Lent.
More frequent attendance at Mass.
Less time spent in eating, or eating less food, or getting up earlier than usual.
Sacrifice of some hours per week that would otherwise have been spent in watching television, listening to the radio, reading secular newspapers, magazines, or fiction.
Walking, instead of driving, and walking upstairs instead of using an elevator.
Doing without some delicacy at table, or not eating between meals.
Getting up promptly in the morning, and retiring in good time at night.
Answering letters or writing to persons who would appreciate hearing from us.
Gauging one's time in telephone conversation or conversation in general.