Matthew Gambino

As a family grows, so too does the need for more closet space. Understanding that truism of parenting two teenagers, I dug into an upstairs storage closet to clear away a decade of stuff.

Among the long-buried items was a box of paperwork, at the bottom of which were greeting cards. My first impulse was to toss them in the recycling bin until I noticed they were Valentine’s Day cards. Eleven years later to the day, I thumbed through the cards given by my daughters, then 4 and 2. “I lov yu Dabby,” read the one on top, followed by others similarly grappling with this tricky English language.

I had found a treasure, a glimpse of memory into the golden years of the kids as toddlers. (They’re still golden all these years later, truth be told.)

Mystery is like that: You keep digging deeper, surprised by what you find at each step. This Sunday Catholics will step into the divine mystery of the Mass where we’ll hear among other words the Collect, or opening prayer, for the First Sunday of Lent.

Most people don’t have the chance to review the words of the liturgy’s prayers in their own copy of the thick Roman Missal, so here is the first half of that Collect prayer:

“Grant, almighty God, through the yearly observance of holy Lent, that we may grow in understanding of the riches hidden in Christ and by worthy conduct pursue their effects.”

Now my daughters might call that a run-on sentence, and they’d have a point because it’s a translation of Latin more closely adhering to that language than English. But it’s the word choices that might make young and old in the congregation wonder what was just prayed aloud by the priest. What does the prayer mean?

First, the words are directed to God. They express the desire to understand better “the riches hidden in Christ.” Like the discovery of a long-forgotten love note written in the crudest form from a 2-year-old child to her father, the prayer calls us to remember a divine treasure.

In this case, those riches are the passion, death and resurrection of Christ. They’re hidden now in this First Sunday of Lent but we will dig deeper into the Scripture readings of the season and discover again the pain, sorrow and triumph of the resurrection. This and every Sunday Mass is paradoxically a renewed celebration of Easter Sunday, even in Lent.

So now that we have “grown(n) in understanding of the riches,” we pray that “by our worthy conduct” we will “pursue” their effects – forgiveness of our sins, healing of the things that burden us, eternal life in heaven. All these are gifts of the resurrection.

It’s important to realize that freedom from sin and the ultimate victory of union with God in heaven depend not as much on us but on the grace and mercy of God. Still, we have a vital role. We are asked not to sit back and expect grace but to work hard at living a virtuous life of love and forgiveness.

That is how grace builds on nature. That is how “by constantly striving to take part in that mystery (of Christ) may we achieve what it seeks to bring about in us,” as the prayer is translated by Jesuit Father Martin O’Keefe.

Remember as you listen to the priest praying this prayer after the penitential rite at the beginning of Mass, we are asking God to grant us understanding and grace. We raise a Trinitarian prayer, pleading with God through Jesus in the unity of the Holy Spirit.

All this on the First Sunday of Lent, like the first of many boxes of mystery to unpack. In them may lay treasures we thought were long buried, waiting for discovery.