Later this month, we begin the season of Lent, the most sacred part of the Church's liturgical year.

On Ash Wednesday, Feb. 22, we are invited to approach the altar to have our foreheads dirtied with a black smudge traced in the form of a cross. These ashes, which traditionally are made by burning the leftover palms from the previous year's Palm Sunday, are employed to remind us graphically of our nothingness, our powerlessness and our insignificance.

The Scriptures insist that we are dust. We are always in the process of dying. From the moment of our birth, we are destined for the irreversible reality of our earthly death.

This remembrance, especially in our death-denying society, should lead us to focus on our mortality - on the day of judgment, when we must render an account of our terrestrial pilgrimage and to repent for those faults and failures for which Jesus endured His passion and death unto resurrection.

More than penance
Strains of "Lord Who Throughout These 40 Days" will echo throughout many of our parishes as a summons to repentance and renewal by imitating Jesus in fasting and prayer. But, as Rev. John Donahue of Loyola College in Baltimore points out, "Too much emphasis on the penitential dimension of the six weeks of Lent can obscure the fact that the seven weeks of Easter also shape the Church's liturgical season.

"Like ripples from a stone cast into a pond, Lent grew from the Easter celebration of the paschal mystery backward to the six weeks of preparation and forward to the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost," he notes.

So Lent is a time of penance - but not just penance. That is why the Second Vatican Council's "Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy" from the 1960s speaks of the twofold character of this liturgical season: "It recalls baptism or prepares us for it," and it "stresses a penitential spirit."

Catechumens preparing for baptism joyfully anticipate the Eastern triduum - as do the rest of us, as we are reminded once again that the story of Jesus' passion, death and resurrection takes place in our lives every day.

We are called to pick up our crosses, to die to ourselves and to search for signs of the resurrection in our lives.

Think positive
How do we do this? In a past era, we were encouraged "to give up something." The key to Lent, however, is to view it less as a burdensome obligation and more as an opportunity to do something positive. Indeed, a good theme song for Lent would be Glen Campbell's "Try a Little Kindness."

Jesuit educator Rev. Peter Schineller opines "that kindness entails an ability to reach out beyond our own situation, good or bad, to show compassion toward others."

Such kindness doesn't have to take on dramatic forms. It can be as simple as a pleasant greeting at the checkout counter, to the bus driver, to the bank teller, to the security guard at the mall or to the person entering church with us.

It might find expression in listening to our spouse, children, coworkers or friends more patiently and sensitively. It might heed the advice of Rev. Adolfo Nicolas, superior general of the Jesuits, who suggests that before speaking you should ask three questions about what you will say: "Is it true; is it kind and gentle; and is it good for others?"

God's kindness
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel saw the beauty of kindness in his observation, "When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people." Paul urged the Christians of Rome to "remain in God's kindness" (Romans 11:2).

Kindness reflects the words and actions of Jesus, who, against all prohibitions of the day, conversed with the Samaritan woman at the well...who saved the bride and groom at Cana from embarrassment by changing water into wine...who healed the woman who sought to touch but the hem of His garment...who gave sight to the blind man at the pool of Siloam...who rescued the woman caught in the very act of adultery...who associated with the despised tax collectors and prostitutes...who coaxed the skeptical yet searching Zacchaeus to come down from the sycamore tree and prepare a meal for Him...who nourished the hungry 5,000 with a few loaves and fishes...who raised Lazarus from the tomb...who surrendered to His Father's will in the garden of Gethsemane...and who forgave the thief who hung beside Him on the cross of Calvary.

Prayer, fasting, alms
Kindness, then, incorporates all the traditional aspects of Lent (prayer, fasting and almsgiving), because it is only through prayer - be it attending Mass, reflecting on the Scriptures or a spiritual book, making the Stations of the Cross or praying extemporaneously - that we can gain the self-awareness to respond to the needs of others.

It is only by fasting - for example, by reducing our time watching TV or pursuing a favorite pastime - that we relinquish our need for control, for unseating the proud ego, so that we can follow the path to surrender which kindness entails.

It is only by almsgiving - to our parish, to Catholic Charities or to some other worthy social agency - that we can acknowledge before God the blessings we have received by giving to those less fortunate, to the poor and vulnerable, part of that with which God has blessed us.

This Lent, then, let us strive to put on the mind and heart of Jesus by "trying a little kindness." This imitation of God's love, mercy and compassion is an excellent way to enter into the paschal mystery of Christ's Passover from death unto life, so that we can celebrate the Easter and Pentecost feast with a renewed mind, heart and spirit.