We are all familiar with the three pillars of Lent: prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. The other day, as I reflected on my daily life, I concluded – with some self-satisfaction – that I already practice these disciplines. Do I pray? Yes. Give alms? Yes. Fast? Well, maybe once in a while. As I enter Lent, then, two out of three ain’t bad, right? Wrong. Jesus tells us in today’s gospel: “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:20). In other words, Lent demands more of us.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus deepened the Law, in contrast to the literal, perhaps even smug interpretation of the Torah by the scribes and Pharisees, and by extension our own understanding of the Commandments. It is more than a matter of not killing or not committing adultery, for example. Go deeper, Jesus urges us. He calls us, not merely to obey the letter of law, but to go the extra mile. Exorcise even those feelings and attitudes that can lead us to violate those commandments. Begin with love and reconciliation.
“If you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift,” Jesus tells us (Mt. 5:23-24). Offering gifts at the altar is a solemn duty. Jesus, however, says the first and greater duty is to reconcile with brother or sister. There can be no true harmony with God if there is disharmony among brother and sister.
Interestingly, the early second-century catechism, the Didache, applies this same principle to the Eucharist: “Let no one who has a quarrel with his fellow join you, until they have been reconciled, so that your sacrifice may not be defiled” (Did. 14:2).
Lent is more than checking boxes. Jesus demands more. Our Lenten journey of 40 days is a time to shake out of our smug and secure comfort zone. This is a time of challenge, purification, and testing. Love and reconciliation are the best way – ultimately the only way – we can prepare for and experience true resurrection.
Deacon Manuel Valencia is on the staff at Mater Dolorosa Passionist Retreat Center, Sierra Madre, California.