What Are the Works of Lent?

These are his holy works, and we are blessed to participate as much as we are able.

Pierre Duval le Camus (1790-1854), “Alms”
Pierre Duval le Camus (1790-1854), “Alms” (photo: Public Domain)

Four weeks ago, on Monday during the First Week of Lent, the collect at the beginning of Mass asked God:

Convert us, O God our Savior, and instruct our minds by heavenly teaching, that we may benefit from the works of Lent.

What, we may ask, are the works of Lent that can benefit us so greatly, by which we can be converted more fully to the Lord? It is no coincidence that the Church provides the answer specifically through the lectionary readings for this week. Within the first week’s Scripture readings, there are several identifiable works by which we can be converted and grow in holiness during this noble season.

The first work of Lent is found in the second reading for the First Sunday of Lent. St. Paul writes to the ancient Roman Church, and to us (Romans 10:9):

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

The very first work of Lent is an act of faith, which includes inward belief and outward expression. During some Lents when my children were born, this is the only work that I have been able to complete during Lent. In such a case, I have simply begged for God's grace to make up in the many areas where I lack.

Related to the first work, another powerful, helpful and humble work of Lent is the disposition to beg the Lord’s mercy. On Tuesday of this week, worshipers recite Psalm 34, which expresses a great truth:

The Lord has eyes for the just, and ears for their cry.

The psalmist (Psalm 34:15-18) goes on:

When the just cry out, the Lord hears them, and from all their distress he rescues them. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.

Calling out to God for mercy is the only way to enter, or re-enter, right relationship with him, during Lent or in any season.

We must remember, though, that confessing with our lips and crying out for mercy are only an indication of an interior transformation taking root. On Wednesday, the faithful recite Psalm 51 and ask once again for God to grant us “a heart contrite and humbled,” to cleanse us from our sin and guilt. Yet, before reciting Psalm 51, we see in the example from the King of Nineveh that a humble and contrite heart elicits outward expression. When Jonah proclaimed the fate that would befall him and his community for their sins, he put on sackcloth and sat in ashes as a sign of repentance for evil. Simply, he wanted everyone around him, and especially the God of whom Jonah spoke, to know his sorrow. So for us. As we begin to let God transform our hearts, to humble us from the pride of former ways, we begin to show on the outside how we feel on the inside.

The first part of expressing conversion in public is simply to observe the statutes and decrees that the Lord has given. For example, in Leviticus 19, from Monday's first reading, we hear that we must not lie, bear false witness, or profane God’s name — nor shall we steal, act deceitfully, or harbor hatred of our fellow man, among other things. The “shall nots,” however, are a limited response, a bare minimum. When conversion begin in a man's heart, he begins to find opportunities to commit the “shalls” that God speaks elsewhere in the Scriptures. Works of Lent can include cultivating honesty, ceasing to swear and starting to bless God’s holy name, detaching from worldly goods and forgiving wrongs patiently without expecting justice. Yes, these are the works of Lent that really do the most good, and which God intends.

The more this trend continues, the more visible fruit there will be. Not only will there be repentance from individuals and ceasing to do the wrong, but there will also be a trend toward fulfilling Jesus’ words and commands as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. In Monday’s Gospel passage, the faithful learn that the fullest expression of following Jesus are works of mercy like feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, and visiting the imprisoned (see Matthew 25:34-40). At the end of Saturday’s Gospel passage, we recognize that there is a higher step on the ladder of holiness. Not only are we supposed to minister to those we don’t know, but we are also called to reach out in mercy and embrace those who have harmed us (see Matthew 5:43-48). Forgiving enemies, or even friends or family members, might possibly be the most difficult of all the works of Lent.

Finally, prayer must envelop each of those works discussed above. Without prayer preceding and following these actions, it will be impossible to make any act of faith, to express contrition, to keep the Lord’s commands, or to engage in works of mercy. Prayer is the glue that will hold such works together as we attempt to make an acceptable gift to the Lord during this wonderful, yet fragile, season. We must always remember that we do none of these works on our own. They only proceed because God wills for us to meet him in the midst of them. This is why we pray, on Thursday, with the psalmist, “The Lord will complete what he has done for me; your kindness, O Lord, endures forever...” (Psalm 138:8).

There is one thing we can say one thing for certain about Lent. If we do not encounter Our Blessed Lord, it will be nearly superfluous. On the other hand, if we recognize that we are nothing without him, then it will have been a great season. It is only appropriate to approach our prayer, fasting, almsgiving and worship from this angle. These are his holy works, and we are blessed to participate as much as we are able, even only a little.