Lent is upon us. Every year, we are given the gift of this 40-day period to prepare ourselves to fully celebrate the Easter Mystery and grow stronger on our Christian journey.

Many Catholics don’t know that Lent has its roots in the earliest expression of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In the first years of the Church, mortal sinners would make a public confession to the community, which in turn would acknowledge these sins. Then, the bishop would impose a penance for each sinner that would last their lifetime. After a given period of time, the bishop would publicly absolve the penitents, welcoming them back to the Eucharist. This early practice morphed into the Lent we know today.

By receiving the ashes on Ash Wednesday at the onset of Lent, we are making a public declaration that we are sinners, much like the penitents of old. What we do in penance for our sins, however, is up to us.

Let us prepare to receive the fullness of the grace of God by using the gift of Lent to grow in faith and love.

Though many give up a favorite food or drink during Lent, I believe we can grow in our relationship with Christ by relating our self-imposed penance to our sins. For instance, if I have a habit of criticizing others, an appropriate penance might be to focus on saying something positive at least once a day about someone in my life. If I have a bad habit of overindulging in food, besides self-denial, I might repent by volunteering in a soup kitchen. By creating our own penance in a way that acknowledges our sins and strives to make amends for them, we are working with the Spirit for the renewal that lies at the heart of the Easter season.

Likewise, when we fast during Lent, we allow ourselves to enter a state of heightened awareness and renewal that this age-old practice can bring. Fasting is not simply about punishing or depriving ourselves. Rather, it is meant to be a spiritual exercise to deepen our Christian lives and to create an awareness of God and solidarity with those in our world who have less than we.  Fasting can teach us how to go further in our relationship with God, as well as with those around us.

As Catholics, Easter Sunday is the highest holy day for us. Let us prepare to receive the fullness of the grace of God by using the gift of Lent to grow in faith and love.

May the joy of the Easter season be with you.

Father Bob Rossi, O.S.C., is a Grief Counselor for Catholic Cemeteries and Funeral Homes.