The following message is from Fr. Pat Brennan. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Jesus pushes beyond the externals of the law and asks us, His followers, to reach into the level of attitudes and motivation. Not only are we to, behaviorly keep the law; we are to constantly work at the purification of attitudes and motives. This is what He is referring to when He calls us away from judgment, anger, impatience, lust. He is calling us always to take inventory, stock, of the inner self, the hidden self, that only God in each of us knows about. Jesus wants us to cleanse, not just our external physical selves, He wants us to reach deeply into our hearts and souls and minds and cleanse our inner self.
This inner transformation is the work of Lent which we begins today. Actually the 40 days of Lent are a hold over from the church’s Order of Penitents which was the original sacrament of reconciliation. People who had seriously violated their baptism by sinning, entered the Order of Penitents through an admission of sin and a profession of faith in God’s mercy and forgiveness. Penitents then entered what could be years of penance and repentance until the community discerned that true reconversion had taken place. It was only then that the words of forgiveness or absolution were pronounced over penitents on Holy Thursday or sometime near Holy Week. Converted, forgiven penitents where then admitted back to the table of the Eucharist from which they had abstained for a significant period of time. This intense approach to repentance and reconversion became shortened into what we now know of as the 40 days of Lent, as the Order of Penitents itself passed from popular usage. The days of Lent were open to all Christians, not just serious public sinners. During Lent all of us should take on the identity of a penitent, actively engaging in penance, actively engaging in repentance and reconversion.
Jesus calls us to become salt and light to the world, calling us to become a city set on a hill. This Sunday’s gospel, calling us to interior transformation, is also an appropriate lead in to Lent. During Lent, the classic disciplines of renewed prayer; fasting, or some form of self control for self discipline; and almsgiving, renewed efforts at sharing time, resources and gifts of the Spirit, should be practiced.
As we do with all the church’s liturgical seasons, we need Lent. We need Lent to help us engage in the discipline that creates the purified, holy world that Jesus calls us to be. Let us use this time well, that we might emerge on Easter Sunday as a truly transformed people.