Here we go again! We enter into the Great Fast (so the Eastern Churches) or Lent this new year of 2009.
As Catholics, along with many Orthodox and even several Protestants, we are commemorating the 2000th anniversary of the birth of St. Paul the Apostle (Saul of Tarsus).
What do these two have to do with one another? It's about conversion. In his epistles the Apostle periodically refers to his own conversion, although obliquely so. He does mention that he was a persecutor of the Church until the Lord Jesus himself definitively affected his life.
I remember in high school when my best friend, an evangelical Protestant, asked me a question that both shook me and piqued my curiosity, "Joachim, do you know Jesus Christ?" I answered him, "Well, I go to church on Sundays," to which he replied, "That's now what I asked."
So, I asked myself that question. I think that is one of the aspects of St. Francis of Assisi that really attracted me, and still does. He knew Jesus; not just knew about Jesus! It was later on that I began to appreciate that I, too, could know Jesus Christ. But knowing the Lord is not just about saying the right prayer or practicing some kind of ritual.
No, rather, it's about growing in a relationship with him. And that is ongoing conversion, something that all of us Christians are called by the Lord to do. As Church we have this wonderful opportunity to do this through the ancient biblical practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving (giving to the poor).
As Franciscan friars, we were originally called the "Penitents of Assisi." Not as self-punishment, but rather, following the inspiration of both St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi, to seek the Lord as our highest good and to pursue him before all others. Having Jesus first in our lives, that's what penance, repentance and conversion is all about.
Being focused on God's Word -- allowing that Word who became Incarnate for us and for our salvation -- is the "center of gravity" of Christian conversion, knowing the Lord.
For Byzantine Rite Catholics who began the Great Fast this past Sunday night at Forgiveness Vespers or Roman Rite Catholics -- and other Western Christians -- who will begin Lent tomorrow with Ash Wednesday, maybe it is time for us to prayerfully consider if we know the Lord. Do our words show it? Do our actions demonstrate it?
For those being marked with ashes tomorrow on our foreheads, and for those who have already begun the Great Fast, perhaps we can enter into this great season of conversion together toward Easter with renewed purpose and vigor to seek the Lord and come through this holy season knowing Jesus more fully. Just like St. Paul the Apostle and St. Francis of Assisi!