“Return to me with your whole heart”. These words were proclaimed in today’s 1st Reading. This sentence from the Book of Joel can help us answer the question, “What is Lent?”
To begin, it’s important to state what Lent is not. Lent is not intended to be a time of misery. Lent is not something that must be endured. The Lenten season is a gift to us and for us. It is a privilege and a blessing to be given such a sacred time of year!
Lent is an opportunity to take an honest look at our lives and at our relationship with God and with other people. It’s a time to take spiritual inventory of our hearts. It’s a chance to make a commitment to do a better job in those areas that require improvement.
Essentially, Lent is a call to conversion. “Conversion” comes from a Latin word, which means “to turn”. In fact, a double turning is involved. Lent is a time to turn away from those attitudes, values and life style choices that are barriers to developing a loving relationship with God and others. Lent is the time to turn towards those attitudes, values and life style choices that draw us into a deeper loving relationship with God and others.
For example, if I have discerned that I am overly critical of others, my challenge for Lent is to turn from making harsh judgments and to turn to making affirming and kind comments to others.
If I am too attached to material things, rather than buying something I really want, I can freely and without resentment donate the money to a favorite charity.
The biggest mistake we can make is to think that we are alone in this task. We have the Holy Spirit who is there to help us and strengthen us.
That’s the reason for which wearing ashes is such a powerful gesture. First, ashes signify our public acknowledgement that we are all in need of pressing the reset button of our lives, of reassessing the priorities in our lives. There are times where we have all messed up. We are all sinners in need of spiritual growth and renewal.
Second, ashes signify our public acknowledgement that we are willing, with God’s help, to make some of those necessary changes of heart / turnarounds that will help us to be who we are really called to be – namely, better Christians.
Lent is more than just giving something up: Lent is about doing something, something that will result in a cleaner heart. Let’s listen again to the powerful words of the Responsorial Psalm: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me”.
If anyone need suggestions for activities to help you grow in right relationship with God and each other, I invite you to go to the website “Busted Halo”. There you will see an excellent post entitled “25 Great Things you can do for Lent”.
As we consider those activities that seem right for this specific moment in our lives, let us be mindful of the caution that Jesus mentions in today’s Gospel: “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret”.
The Gospel makes the point that our Lenten observance ought to have nothing to do with impressing others or making outward show. Our motivation ought not to be focused on such self-serving gains as “What am I getting out of this?” “What’s in this for me?”
Fr. Henri Nouwen puts it this way: “Against my own best intentions, when I give advice, I want to know whether it is being followed; when I offer help, I want to be thanked; when I give money, I want it to be used my way; when I do something good, I want to be remembered. Can I give without wanting anything in return, love without putting any conditions on my love? Considering my immense need for human recognition and affection, I realize that it will be a lifelong struggle. But I am also convinced that each time I step over this need and act free of my concern for return, I can trust that my life can truly bear the fruits of God’s Spirit”.
What Fr. Nouwen is saying is that, if we perform external deeds without the inner change of heart, our actions will be a sham. It’s what happens inside that counts. The inner intentions matter more than the external acts.
“Return to me with your whole heart”. These words are addressed to each of us this afternoon. In his Lenten message a few years ago, Pope Francis wrote, “Let us not waste this season of Lent, so favourable a time for conversion!”
My hope for all of us is that this Lent may be a favorable time of turning from and turning to so that we may return to the Lord.
When Easter comes, I pray that each person here today will be able to say, “I am a better disciple of Jesus today than I was 40 days ago”.
Deacon Roland Muzzatti
February 17, 2021