Happy Valentine’s Day! Happy Ash Wednesday! By the way, Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday go together very well. Maybe that doesn’t seem right because today is day of fast and abstinence. Instead of eating a fancy meal or feasting on chocolates, we eat simply.
Yet, during Lent God gives us a huge valentine. Often we fail to see that because we associate Lent with fasting, alms and prayer – all things that we do to work on our spiritual life. But God gives us much more than we could ever give back.
Maybe it will help to fast forward to the end of Lent. The end will help us understand the essence of Lent. At the end of Lent, God showers us with his greatest gifts:
- Jesus gives us his Body and Blood at the Last Supper.
- He pours out his life on the cross saying, “Father, forgive them . . .”
- The Risen Christ says, “Do not be afraid. I am with you always.”
- Finally, God sends the Holy Spirit so that our hearts burn with his love.
Those events are the heart of the gospel, or the kerygma of the gospel.
As you are marked with ashes we will say, “Repent, and believe in the gospel.” In other words, believe in the gift of Jesus’ life poured out in the Eucharist. Believe in his death on the cross to free you from sin. Believe in the gift of the Holy Spirit that keeps coming to you in prayer. Believe in the gospel. Trust in Jesus’ mercy proclaimed in the gospel.
Lent is a time to stop and realize how good God is to us. The Opening Antiphon for Mass is all about GOD. It says nothing about what we should do. “You are merciful to all O Lord, and despise nothing that you have made. You overlook people’s sins, to bring them to repentance, and you spare them, for you are the Lord our God” (Wis. 11:24-25, 27). Those are the first words that we are supposed to hear as we begin Lent.
As you are marked with ashes we will say, “Repent, and believe in the gospel.” The Hebrew word for repent means to turn. There are two essential components of repentance: Turn toward God, and turn away from sin. We usually think of the second one, but the first one is more important. Repent. First, turn toward God, then turn away from sin.
This is exactly what God tells us to do in the first reading today. The very first words of the Scriptures for Lent are these: “Even now, says the Lord, 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” (Joel 2:12-13).
Fasting is a way of returning to God with your whole heart. We pray better when our stomachs are not filled with food. Fasting makes us think of our deepest hunger. Food can’t fill us……. nothing can really fill the heart except GOD. Fasting is worthless unless it helps you meet God. We fast to remind us that we live not on bread but on God’s Word. We FAST so that we can FEAST on the Word of God.
Lent has one purpose – to renew our relationship with God. Turn toward God. Accept the Valentine of God’s love. “For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment” (Joel 2:13). Turn back to God’s merciful love. Then you will have a deeper repulsion of sin. Then you will see your sin more clearly and confess your sin more confidently.
If you do only one thing this Lent, do something that will renew your relationship with God. But remember, God longs to renew the relationship more than you do. Turn toward God. Let God surprise you with sweet Valentines. St. Catherine of Siena said: “Don’t you understand? God is running after you day and night as though he has nothing else to do but simply to occupy himself with you.”
Lent has one purpose – to renew our relationship with God. When you fast, let it be a way to empty yourself to focus on God, or see it as a discipline to help you be more selfless like God, more focused on living for others. When you pray, read one of the readings for daily Mass. Listen for how it speaks of God’s love for you, or for how the Word challenges you to imitate his love. When you give alms or do good deeds, let them be inspired by God’s good deeds toward you.
But remember, fasting, prayer and almsgiving will be just a bunch of hard work. They will become a burden. They will be lifeless, unless you first open your heart to receive God’s Valentine.
St. Paul says it best: “We implore you, in Christ’s name, be reconciled to God! For our sakes, God made [Jesus] who did not know sin to be sin, so that in him we might become the very holiness of God” (2 Cor. 5:20-21).