“A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.” -Psalm 51
This year I find myself anticipating Lent eagerly. I relished the joy and hope of the Christmas season, but when it came to an end, I entered into Ordinary Time and found myself slushing through the seemingly never-ending gloom of winter. You know the season—the small chunk of the liturgical calendar that sometimes feels like an awkward waiting game between Christmas and Easter. Right now, I feel spiritually complacent—mediocre. My prayer life feels as drab as the ongoing winter. I am distracted and bogged down by cares of the world. I don’t have a consistent routine. But now Lent is upon us. And I’m ready to change things.
For Ash Wednesday’s readings tomorrow, we immediately hear the powerful words of the prophet Joel: “Return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; rend your hearts, not your garments and return to the Lord your God.” This is followed in the second reading with, “Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”
There is an urgency in the Scriptures on this day. The tone is serious and I can almost hear St. Paul’s breathlessness while he exhorts the Corinthian church, “We implore you, be reconciled to God.” They ring out to each of us today and serve as a wake-up call to Christians: do not wait until tomorrow to pursue holiness, but start now, this very minute.
The readings begin to awaken me from my spiritual slumber. However, words alone do not suffice in spiritual conversion. They require action—a response. Rather than causing me panic, the readings continue by offering concrete solutions. Christ himself instructs us, telling us to give alms, pray, and fast in tomorrow’s Gospel:
“Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them… When you give alms,
do not blow a trumpet before you.” (almsgiving)
“When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.” (prayer)
“When you fast, do not look gloomy…anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting.” (fasting)
These instructions are God’s response for how to “return to the Lord with your whole heart” this season. We are not left with lofty, unattainable goals, but with action. This is what Lent is all about: responding to God’s grace and promptings in our lives to pursue holiness with greater attention and effort through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Only two times a year does the Church ask us to prepare at so committed a rate: Advent and Lent. The reason for this is because Advent and Lent prepare us for the two most important theological moments of Christianity: the Incarnation of God made flesh in the birth of Jesus Christ and the Resurrection of the Savior after his crucifixion and death.
In order to even begin to grasp, understand, and celebrate the enormity of these events, we need to be spiritually awake. And the best way to wake up and prepare for Easter is through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, which the Church invites us to do during the Lenten season. And our spiritual fathers remind us that “now is a very acceptable time…Now is the day of salvation” (emphasis added).
Currently in my spiritual life, I feel a bit like the rich fool in the Gospel. He reached a level of material comfort that led him to build larger barns to store his wealth, only to have his life demanded of him that very night. While I don’t resonate with his material wealth, I feel satiated as he did by the things of the world. As I enter into the Lenten season, I find it hard to concentrate in prayer because I’m thinking of material goods or worldly concerns. It was not the wealth of the man itself that was wrong or evil, but his complacency. He looked at the “many good things” he owned and decided to rest, eat, drink, and be merry. Christ then goes on to say he was rich in treasure for himself but not “rich in what matters to God.” What matters to God is a relationship with each of us (prayer), a life lived in service to others (almsgiving), and occasional self-sacrifice (fasting) that increases our discipline, unites our sufferings to Christ’s on the cross, and increases our reliance on God himself.
So now, as I find myself at the beginning of this Lenten season, I want to emerge from my spiritual complacency and respond to the Lord’s call to return to him with my whole heart.
Will you join me?
For more resources to accompany you through your Lenten journey, please click here.