Many have noticed that Pope Francis, in his preaching, likes to make three points for his listeners to remember. I am told that this is a “Jesuit thing,”  in that his background in the Society of Jesus has formed him to preach and teach in a way that makes it easy to remember his message. I would like to try this here, although I am going to “double down” by giving us two sets of three things to remember.

We have solemnly begun the season of Lent. We did so on Ash Wednesday when we received the powerful sign of the ashes in the form of our Lord’s cross on our foreheads. What do these ashes symbolize for us, especially in the context of Lent? You guessed it – basically three things.

They are first a symbol of our desire for repentance and conversion. This is shown in one of the optional phrases spoken as the ashes are imposed: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” Ashes are an ancient biblical sign of repentance – a turning away from sin and turning back to God. When the people of biblical times desired to show their intent to repent of wrongdoing, they put on sackcloth and ashes. During Lent we seek to be more deeply converted to the Lord, especially through the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.

Secondly, the ashes are a reminder of the brevity of our lives on this earth, shown by the other option for the imposition of ashes: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We must live out our brief time in this world with an eternal perspective. We will all die one day and stand before the judgment seat of Christ and have to give an accounting for how we spent the time given to us in this world. If we began every day with this thought, how differently we might approach each day.

Thirdly, the ashes are produced by the burning of the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration. The palms had to “die” and be destroyed in order to give us the ashes. It is a reminder that we are called to “die” to our selfishness, our self-will and our own ego and pride. We do this so that we might live more fully for God and for others. Jesus said, “…whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?” (Mt. 16:25-26)

Here come the next three things for Lent. How shall we live this season in order to gain the most from this beautiful time of grace given to us by God? These are the three pillars of the spiritual life and of our Lenten observance: Prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

We should spend more time in prayer during this time of Lent. It is amazing how we manage to find time to do all sorts of things, but often complain that we do not have time to pray. Think of it this way. If we gave God just 15 minutes every day to pray, this is 1.5 percent of our waking hours. If we could find 30 minutes, that’s only 3 percent of our time when we are awake. If we are serious about a personal and fruitful relationship with God, then we have to give him some of our time. For those of you who are married, would you actually be married if you gave no time for your spouse?

Fasting. We are called to do some form of penance throughout the year, especially on Fridays, but we do so with greater intensity during Lent. Before Jesus began his public ministry, he spent 40 days and nights in the desert fasting and praying. If the eternal Son of God fasted, why would we think we do not need it? Works of penance help us conquer our selfishness, strengthen our will for doing good and avoiding sin, and help us think more about the needs of others. It also gives real power to our prayer.

Almsgiving. We must take care of the needs of the poor and suffering. Jesus told us that we would be judged at the end of our life on how we did (or did not) feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and those in prison. During this year of mercy, Pope Francis has called us to practice with greater intention the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Lent is a great time to get on track with this.

So, we have three things to reflect on and pray about (repentance, the brevity of our life on earth, and the need to die to ourselves) and three things to do with greater energy (pray, fast, and the works of mercy). Combine this with a vibrant sacramental life of Holy Mass and the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, and I guarantee you will grow incredibly during this holy season. So let’s get going!