Just as the prophet Joel calls Israel to unite in worship in a spirit of penance, so today we gather liturgically to begin an extended period of penance that we call Lent. As the minister places the ashes on our heads we hear either the first words of the Gospel that Our Lord preached when beginning his public ministry (“Repent, and believe in the Gospel”), or that we came from nothing but dust and our sins want us to return to dust and not enjoy what Our Creator has wished for us (“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”). If we need to be reminded of the first Gospel steps to take in life, and of the fact that we are creatures it means we’ve lost sight of the big picture. Lent helps us bring that big picture back into focus.
In today’s First Reading the Lord through the prophet Joel tells us what he wants this Lent: “return to me with your whole heart.” This invitation echoes the profession of faith of ancient Israel: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). We must love the Lord wholeheartedly, with everything we have and are, and we know sometimes we haven’t.
The Lord says we can return to him through fasting, weeping, and mourning. It may be possible to fast for superficial motives (like losing weight), but there is no faking weeping and mourning. It is the object of our weeping and mourning that we should examine this Lent: am I weeping what I have to give up for a few weeks, or am I weeping for how horribly I’ve treated God and others? Lent is a matter of the heart, and it is a time for exploring it.
St. Paul in today’s Second Reading reminds us of the goal of our penance this Lent and beyond: to be reconciled to God. The Lord himself doesn’t need to seek out our reconciliation and is blameless for us estranging ourselves from him, but he comes to reconcile us with the Heavenly Father anyway. It is through Jesus Christ that the work of our reconciliation is accomplished, and during these days of Lent we are remembering and preparing for that very event.
Even as we consider the somber purple of this season we remember the sorrow and suffering, often self-inflicted, that we experience due to our sins, as well as the pain inflicted on Our Lord and on others. So we begin once again with prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to draw closer to God and to others in sorrow for our sins and a desire for reconciliation, confident that Our Lord at the end of these days will win us the graces to do so.
In today’s Gospel Our Lord teaches us it is not just what we do, but how and why we do it that matters. The ashes we receive today are meant to be an exterior sign of an interior disposition. Just as in the Old Testament the penitent would sprinkle ashes on their heads and mourn their sin as well as the evil sin has done in their lives, so we receive the ashes to show our desire to live holier lives. Lenten observances are classically divided into prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Our Lord mentions all three today and puts us on guard on doing them wrong: doing them out of social convention or to impress others instead of him.
The anonymous donor when it comes to almsgiving is a fine and honored tradition of showing you don’t want recognition from anyone other than God. Corporate donors, while not denying their generosity, are also doing it for publicity.
Praying in the presence of others is not bad, unless you’re just doing it to be seen as pious by them, but you also need moments of prayer in solitude and silence where it’s just you and God. The Church has so many popular devotions—rosaries, litanies, scapulars, the Way of the Cross, etc.—but those devotions should not crowd out Our Lord or quality time with him in the silence not only of our rooms, but our hearts.
The biggest challenge of fasting is never letting people see you sweat. A lot of things we give up for Lent—food, social media, video games—put a real strain on our charity, because they’re things we do to alleviate the very stress that makes us uncharitable. There’s no shame in being upfront with others that your fasting may make you a little more cranky (as if they didn’t notice), but remember that the Lord says he desires mercy, not sacrifice. Fasting doesn’t give us a free pass to make others as miserable as we are (or more).
Lent begins today. The way we begin will influence the way we end. There’s always a danger during Lent of making resolutions that are boilerplate and not really impactful on our spiritual life. We can choose things that are not very challenging or things that we’ll not be able to fulfill out of a desire to set something aside “cold turkey.” It’s okay to make a resolution that involves a knock down, drag out fight with yourself. Those resolutions help you grow in humility as you make them, break them, receive Reconciliation, dust yourself off, and keep trying. Lent is as much about experiencing mercy as it is being sorry for your sins and failings. If you see there are certain sins and failings in your spiritual life that occur repeatedly that’s the perfect source of resolutions. Lent is a special time of grace for growing spiritually by working on what we need to change.