First Point.—The first motive which seems to have influenced the Church in the institution of Lent has been to afford us an opportunity of fulfilling the law of penance. We cannot forget that there is a law which obliges all the children of Adam to do penance. This law has been proclaimed at the moment of the fall, and was again proclaimed by the Gospel, and at the time of our regeneration. This
law is binding on us as men; since we are heirs to the sin of Adam, we are also heirs to the sentence which has condemned him to suffer.
This law is binding on us, also, as Christians, since it is only by fulfilling it we become like to our Model and Master. A great expiation has been consummated on Golgotha! Christians, children of the
cross, fruits conceived amidst the heart rendings and agonies of Calvary; disciples of a God dead on the cross; sons of the King—but of a King crowned by sorrow; born to the purple—but the purple of His blood,—our life should not belie our origin! The sacrifice of the Saviour has been complete in all that regards the person and the merits of the Victim; but this sacrifice should continue in His members, who with Him form but one and the same mystical body. His cross remains forever planted in the midst of His Church, to recall to us the obligation of attaching ourselves to it and of dying on it with Him; and there shall be something wanting to His passion, as St. Paul has understood it, if it is not accomplished, also, in our own body; if the blood of Jesus does not continue, in some way, to flow in the veins of His apostles and martyrs and confessors, and in all those who believe in Him, until the time when the whole Church shall have passed from the state of suffering and of combat to the possession of glory.
The law of penance is binding on us especially as sinners. Let us recall to mind all the transgressions which make us debtors to Divine Justice—and insolvent debtors, too, without any doubt, if God had not deigned to accept our feeble satisfactions in consideration of the superabundant merits of His Son. At this remembrance, does not your conscience tell you the necessity of chastising a rebellious flesh which has been so often the occasion and the instrument of your falls? Now, this penance, whose indispensable necessity you cannot forget, whether to make you " conformable to the image of
the Son" or to expiate your countless prevarications,—do you do it? Alas!—you must admit it—your time is always ready, as the Saviour reproached the Jews: I mean the time for your business, your pleasures, the time for sin; but the time of Jesus, the time of penance, is never ready or at hand. You put it off, and defer it, and expect every day that the time shall come; but the time never comes. Now, the Church comes to assist us in our weakness and in our cowardice. She strongly reminds you of this precept of penance, which your indifference neglects. From all the pulpits which are erected in the innumerable churches of the Catholic world the resounding voice is heard in unmistakable terms: "Unless you do penance you shall perish"
And, not content with reminding you of this great precept, the Church anticipates your indecision by determining the time when this duty will bind with greater rigor, and by indicating the most suitable manner of penance; thus, by a happy violence, she forces you, so to speak, to enter the way of penance by adding to the authority of God her own authority. In fine, that you may not escape the pursuit of Divine Justice, she, in a way, encloses you in a circle of forty days, and she will not allow you to depart until you shall have given these sacred duties a just satisfaction. Do you love your soul enough to understand and second the merciful intentions of the Church in your regard?
Second Point. —By instituting the Lenten time the Church wishes to make us meditate on the sufferings of Our Saviour. The mortification of the senses is not sufficient for salvation—it must be accompanied by compunction of heart. Now, what is more capable of exciting compunction in us than the meditation of a mystery as tender as it is terrible—-the mystery of our redemption? Unquestionably we can obtain this compunction of heart by other considerations, drawn from the grandeur of God, or His justice, or the heinousness of sin ; but the true source of tears—tears which flow from the heart as well as from the eyes; those tears which are sweet in their bitterness; which have the power to purify the soul, to strengthen it, to transform it, to create in it the new man,—the true source of such tears is in the cross; in the cross which illumines all the divine perfections, but in a manner so well arranged that His goodness dominates and absorbs all the other perfections, and all the rays of this grand glory melt away and are effaced in the single ray of love.
The cross is by excellence the Christian's book. Every one may read it. There, in characters visible to every eye and accessible to every intelligence, you may learn what is most important for every Christian to know. Behold why the Church unfolds its blood-stained pages during the holy exercises of Lent! Not only does she wish that we should recall the grand mystery of our redemption, but she also renders it in a way present and sensible by the vivacity and truth of her pictures, as an action which had passed under our very eyes. She sprinkles her children with ashes, she exchanges her vestments of joy which were worn on festival occasions, and assumes others of a sombre hue; she sings, it is true, but her chants are from a voice broken with sobs and tears ; she seems to fear the solitude, for her children are in such great sorrow; She invites them frequently to assemble in community for prayer, for the sacrifice of the Mass, and for pious reunions. We could say of her children that they are like a family bowed by sorrow, whose members have united to "weep for the loss of an only and well-beloved son." As the end approaches, the representation becomes more striking, and the impression of the death of the Man-God is more vividly felt. The very silence of His tomb seems to reign in the temple during the last days of the great and Holy Week. The stripped altars and the open and empty tabernacles leave nothing to behold except the cross unveiled—the cross which the Church only adores and only salutes in plaintive chants as our one, last, and only hope.
Allow your heart to go out to, and be touched by, these holy impressions if you wish to respond to the intentions of the Church. Let your faith lead you to assist at each of these terrible scenes of which the drama of redemption is composed; gather with love the drops of bloody sweat falling from Jesus in the Garden of Olives; place your lips on each imprint of that precious blood which has reddened the road to Calvary; also to each of those sacred wounds from which spring the running waters of life eternal. Accompany by your sighs and tears, and with the daughters of Jerusalem, this new Isaac up to the hill-top of Calvary, and do not descend from the holy mountain where the greatest of sacrifices has been accomplished until you have struck your breast with the centurion; or, rather, do not quit the holy mountain, but remain there, crucified with Jesus; nail to the cross, not your feet and hands, but your sins and defects and desires, for which the Saviour has died; it shall be in vain that He died for your sins if you also do not die to them, to arise with Him to a new life.
Source: Short Instructions on the Feasts of the Year, Imprimatur 1897