I once joined a concelebrated Mass for a building’s groundbreaking. As the main celebrant and I prepared to distribute Communion, he announced in English and Filipino, “Because we are all sinners, we must all go to Communion.” I walked to the back of the tent, where most of the construction workers and drivers were.
It was one of the most inspiring moments of my priestly ministry. Practically all of the close to 40 construction workers and drivers lined up and received Communion. Despite the efforts to wash their hands clean for the Mass, one could see the work-stained hands which they held out to receive the body of Christ. There was a glow in their faces and a smile on their lips that manifested joy and a sense of peace.
“When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Child, your sins are forgiven.’”
I would like to think that this moment—when the workers and drivers received Communion—was infused with the same grace of the healing power of Christ’s forgiving love. “Child, your sins are forgiven.”
The readings this Sunday beautifully proclaim the power of God’s forgiving and healing love. It is this love that is the central grace of the sacraments of the Mass and Confession, the sacraments of the Holy Eucharist and Reconciliation.
Let me veer away a bit from our regular Sunday Gospel reflection and pose to you a Lenten Challenge. This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. We begin the 40-day season of Lent.
This period of preparation culminates in Holy Week when we have the liturgical celebration called The Great Easter Triduum: The Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, Good Friday’s Veneration of the Cross and the Easter Vigil. This is a celebration of Jesus and the Father’s forgiving love and healing compassion.
Lent and Holy Week are special seasons of grace. The 40 days of Lent comprise a privileged season of preparation to renew the grace of the central mystery and grace of our Christian faith, the Cross and the Resurrection, the Paschal Mystery.
In the Scripture, 40 is a mystical number. In the Old Testament, the chosen people wandered for 40 years in the desert before they reached the promised land. In the New Testament, Jesus fasted and prayed for 40 days in the desert before he started his ministry. After the Resurrection, he spent 40 days with his disciples before he ascended to heaven and missioned his disciples.
The period of 40—years or days—is a period of preparation for something new or renewed, for a leveling up of our life as we live its meaning and mission. This is our Lenten Challenge, to renew our Christian identity and mission.
The opening statement of the document “Jesuits Today” (1975) from their 32nd General Congregation frames it succinctly. To paraphrase: What does it mean to be a Christian? It is to know one is a sinner, yet called to be a companion of Jesus…in his mission to save the world…a Christian, therefore, is essentially a person on a mission…it is in companionship that a Christian fulfills his/her mission. He/she belongs to a community of friends in the Lord…”
This is our Christian identity and mission renewed in the Lenten season. It is first to know we are sinners, but it is not a neurotic, overly scrupulous acknowledgement of one’s shortcomings. Rather, it is a humble realization both of one’s faults and misdeeds, while acknowledging God’s forgiveness and compassion. To know one is a sinner is to know the power of God’s forgiving love.
This is the Lenten discipline of repentance and penance. It leads us to the freedom of a forgiven sinner—“Child, your sins are forgiven.”
It gives us this freedom that allows us to hear the call, the invitation to be a companion, a follower of Jesus—“From now on, I will make you fishers of men.” “Come follow me.”
It is from the abundance of one’s heart that one responds to this invitation. This abundance comes from the abundance of God’s forgiving love.
The forgiveness is such that it is not a forgive-and-forget relationship that follows. The relationship is transformed into a companionship on mission.
I am always inspired by people who have undergone conversion and renewal. They live lives with the zeal of a missionary. Often this zeal and sense of mission come from their sense of being a forgiven sinner. In this sense, they do not forget. They remember their sins, yes, but more than this, they remember the power of God’s forgiving love.
I celebrate Mass and a mini-recollection of sorts once a month for a family. Our running joke is we are able to celebrate our belonging to the community of dysfunctional families. Seriously, though, we are able to celebrate the Holy Eucharist for its central reality and grace—“We remember how you loved us, to your death and still we celebrate for you are with us here. And we believe that we will see you, when you come in your glory, Lord. We remember. We celebrate. We believe.”
We gather as sinners. We know and acknowledge our sinfulness at the very start of the Mass. It is in this awareness and confession as sinners that we turn to God’s forgiving love. We glorify this love. We remember this and we remember, with deep gratitude, our call to mission—“We thank you for counting us worthy to stand in your presence…make us grow in love…” “Go in peace to love and to serve the Lord and one another.”
Lent prepares us for the celebration of the Paschal Mystery in Holy Week, in The Great Easter Triduum. It is this same mystery that we remember and celebrate at each celebration of the Mass.
The Mass is the most common gathering we have as a Catholic-Christian community. Let this be part of our Lenten Challenge as we renew our Christian identity and mission. We are sinners called to be part of Jesus’ mission and we are also community.
This Lenten season, can we become the community that carried the paralytic not just through the crowds, but atop the roof and lowered him through the roof to be with Jesus? As this Sunday’s Gospel tells us: “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Child, your sins are forgiven.’”
This is the Lenten Challenge and it is the grace of the Paschal Mystery—“Because we are all sinners, we must all go to Communion.”