I was listening to the radio one morning recently—it was a New York station—when I heard an announcement that caught my ear. It was directed toward persons who are addicted to gambling, but I saw another meaning in it as well, a meaning that is particularly appropriate for Christians as we prepare for Lent.
The announcer said that persons addicted to gambling could find help by calling a phone number. In New Jersey, it’s 800-GAMBLER.
In New York, it’s 1-877-8-HOPENY.
It’s good to know that help is available for people who struggle with gambling, but when I heard the hotline names, my first thought was this: What a perfect summary of the meaning of Lent.
Think about it. The addicted person who dials the number in New Jersey is making an admission: I’m a gambler. I admit it. I’m acting irresponsibly, I’m throwing money away, and my addiction is ruining my life. I want to stop, but I can’t seem to do it and I need help.
The addicted person who dials the number in New York gets a strong message as soon as he or she looks at the letters that represent the phone number: Don’t give up. You can beat this. You might be feeling really low right now, and you might think there’s no way out. But help is here for you, and you have what you need to succeed: You have hope.
Those two themes—the admission of wrongdoing, and the certainty and power of hope, apply to all of us, in all the struggles and difficulties in our lives. They are also at the heart of Lent.
This is the season when the Church calls us to reflect more deeply on the final days of Christ’s earthly life, on the meaning of His Passion and death, on the ultimate sacrifice that He willingly made to obtain our salvation. The Church also calls us to take a probing look at our own lives, to see how we can conform more closely to the example that Christ gave us and to imitate Him. We’re asked to spend time in prayer, to make sacrifices, to help those in need and to work on overcoming our sins and weaknesses.
We need only do two things: Admit that we have sinned, and believe firmly that we can be forgiven. We need to believe that we can repent, overcome our weaknesses and draw closer to the Lord, always remembering His great love for us.
That’s very similar to what those two phone numbers are meant to symbolize: taking responsibility for one’s actions, and living in confident hope of forgiveness and permanent change.
Chances are that most of us are not in need of radical change, the kind that persons with addictions are seeking (and for which they deserve our compassion and our prayers). Maybe we want to develop better control over a wayward temper, or put more time into prayer and spiritual reading. But even relatively minor changes are more likely to happen, and to last and bear fruit, if we plan them with a firm commitment.
The best way to start is by going to confession. I don’t find it easy, but when I feel hesitant about walking into the confessional I remind myself that when I walk out, I will be filled with joy, peace of heart and renewed hope.
The Church reminds us of the importance of receiving the sacrament of Penance especially during Lent. It is a sign of the new life of grace that we received because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The sacrament of Penance is personal, administered to us individually, and that reminds us that Christ did not die for us as an anonymous horde of humanity. He died for us in the same way He loves us: individually, personally, because each of us is unique and irreplaceable.
As soon as we understand that, the permanent changes we want to make become less formidable.
I already have my own lenten program sketched out. I’m going to concentrate on taking my own advice.