“We arrive at Lent as humbled sinners,” as Fr. Francis reminds us in the Seasonal Introduction to Lent. We are grateful for the opportunity for spiritual renewal that Lent offers every year because every year we need to be stripped of the worldliness and the sin to which we have become attached. The solemn and striking liturgy of Ash Wednesday alerts us to the new season that has begun and gives us a time to reflect and discover what sins and attachments God wants to free us from so that he can fill us with his own life.
In today’s Gospel Jesus tells us of three basic practices to aid us during our Lenten journey: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. Almsgiving, though usually an exterior practice, is never about what anyone else happens to see. The key to fruitful almsgiving is what the Father sees in secret. This practice helps us let go of the things we cling to in this world, so that we can see and answer the need of our brothers and sisters. Often this means we must overcome our selfish attitude toward our money, but we can also make alms of our time and of our possessions, especially things which we value too highly. Things that we think we cannot do without – these are the things to give to those in need.
Prayer is essentially an interior practice, not simply a multiplication of words. When we pray, we spend time in conversation with God. Here is some excellent spiritual direction on how to practice prayer: “When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.” This “inner room” is our own heart, where we meet God. However, our hearts are also afflicted by sin and its effects, which is why Lent speaks often of our need for a “new heart.” We pray in today’s psalm, “A clean heart create for me, O God!” Devoting more time to prayer during this Lent will give Our Lord the opportunity to speak to us, to shine his light on hidden areas of darkness, so that we can receive from him a new heart.
The third Lenten discipline is fasting. Today we have readily available many foods, desserts, drinks and entertainment. Lent gives us a welcome reminder and opportunity to resist these many temptations to gluttony. When we find it very challenging to deny ourselves something as simple as a cup of coffee or a dessert, it shows us how easily our physical desires can rule over us. When we fast, we empty ourselves so that we can “return to the Lord with our whole heart” and be filled with him.
The first reading tells us of God’s great desire for us to return to him. “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart.” Today is the time to return to him, “For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment.” He will never reject us; he desires union with us. The prophet reveals what happens when we repent of all that offends the Lord and when we open our hearts to him: The Lord is “stirred to concern for his land” and takes pity on his people.
We enter into a sacred time to grow in our friendship with God, aided by the practice of these three disciplines. As we seek him, God will reveal to us what we need to do and what we need to set aside. Lent calls us to make decisions for God and to carry them out, to discipline our desires and make good use of our free time, to foster love for others, and to make God and his will our first priority. Ash Wednesday also reminds us that as we begin this journey, we are not journeying alone. We are journeying as a Church in need of renewal – elders, children, infants at the breast, bridegrooms and brides, priests – all seeking the mercy of the Lord. These Forty Days are a time of grace for all of us who have allowed sin to separate us from God. He himself is calling us back. Now is the day of salvation, the time for us to turn away from sin and come back to God.
What are the attachments from which God wants to free me? Am I willing to answer the needs of my brothers and sisters? How can I deepen my prayer life during Lent?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 15, no. 3. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.