As I was reflecting on the title of this column, I remember the story of two female students in Manila: one, a Filipina Catholic, and the other a Chinese Buddhist. One day around the New Lunar Year they visited together a Buddhist Temple and a Catholic Church, in Binondo. Right after visiting the Buddhist temple, which is near our Dominican House there, they proceeded to the nearby Church of Quiapo, the Church of the popular Cristo Nazareno. Near the entrance of the Church, there is a huge Crucifix. When they were leaving the Church through its entrance, the Chinese girl asked, pointing to the big crucifix: Who is this?”  The Catholic girl answered: “Jesus Christ; He died for us.” As they were going out, the Buddhist asked the Catholic: What did you say? That He died for you?”  “Yes!” “What have you done for him?” I ask myself: What have I done for the crucified Lord who did for me – and for you? I try to answer the question through Lent, which is the best time – also for you, dear reader.

The word “lent”, we are told, derives from an old English word “Lenten,” which means springtime. On the other hand, the Latin word “Lente” means going slowly. Based on this double etymology, Lent signals the onset of spring and invites us to slow down our pace, to gather our thoughts, as it were, to take stock of our lives, to begin once again, to put things in their proper perspective (Richard McBryan).

          Lent is the Christian’s journey to the celebration of the great mystery of Easter, the Resurrection of the Lord. It is the season of penance and of penances: of penance (of the virtue and the Sacrament of Penance); and of penances (prayer, fasting and almsgiving).

`        As a moral virtue, or good habit, penance inclines us to work actually for the elimination of sin and the increase of grace and love. As a Sacrament, it forgives our sins when properly disposed, repentant, and gives us – and increases – God’s grace and love in our souls. The basic penance for all Christians is greater fidelity to the Gospel, to our concrete vocation and to our mission in our world.

The ultimate goal of penance is “that we should love God and commit ourselves completely to him” (St. Paul VI). According to Vatican II, the real essence of the virtue of penance is hatred for sin as an offense against God, against God’s children – all neighbors – and against God’s creation.

Penance is mainly interior penance, which is centered on repentance, as a firm disposition of the soul to renounce sin and return to God, as a permanent inclination to change our lives following the direction of Christ, the Way.   Interior penance inclines us to do external penances.

The classical penances are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. These penances help us re-establish and fortify our relationship with God through prayer, with ourselves through fasting(someone has said that fasting is the prayer of the body), and with others – particularly the needy – through almsgiving. The prophet’s advice: “Atone for your sins by good deeds, and for your misdeeds by kindness to the poor; then your prosperity will be long” (Dan 4:24).

The living Christian tradition on penances, then, refers to the three classical – always consider together by the Fathers of the Church. Prayer is like the fountain of the water we need to nurture our thoughts, words and deeds, and leads us to fasting. More than the abstinence of food and drink, fasting is the symbol of a simple, sober and frugal life, and leads to almsgiving or sharing something with the poor.

           Regarding our daily life, we try to fulfill – with “determination our obligations and responsibilities with hopeful patience and spiritual joy”.

Regarding our prayer: let us try to be faithful to it daily, and above all to the Holy Eucharist on Sundays. Remember that our prayer time is God’s time. It is fruitful to make short pauses of silence during the day: it helps us realize and strengthen the actual presence of God in everything good we do.

Regarding our fasting, let us live, perhaps – and if possible – a bit more ascetical and compassionate life. Today we need a new expression of fasting, that is, electronic fasting:  by using less of the internet, and interned connected instruments, especially the mobiles. This contributes to having more interior silence in which God speaks, and exercise the art of listening to the words of others, particularly the significant others.

Regarding our almsgiving, we may share, perhaps, a little more with the poor: not only by donating to both: to Caritas and also to one – or a few – needy persons around us. It is different to give to a charitable institution, which is very good, than to a concrete poor person – our brother or sister in Christ. The poor are “proxies of Christ” (St. Basil).

On Ash Wednesday, we may make our Lenten resolutions – or later. It will help us be focused on the journey of Lent and up to the Sacred Triduum of Holy Week.

Will we achieve what we propose to do?  We will try, knowing that – as the saints tell us – to try hard is already a grace of God. Anyway, it is good for us to make concrete resolutions for our journey of Lent. I invite you – if you have not done so yet – to have your own, but not many, just one or two, perhaps. The essential one is to try to do better what we ought to do. “If you just are what you ought to be, you will set the whole world on fire” (St. Catherine of Siena).

It is said that there are three things that do not come back: the spent arrow, the spoken word and the lost opportunity. Let us make of our Lent, with the never-failing grace and love of God, a unique opportunity to change, to improve ourselves, that is, to become closer to Christ, to love him – and all others – more, and therefore to be happy or happier.

Let us celebrate Lent with our “determined determination” to be better Christians. We will never regret it!