Today, as we begin the rich and holy Season of Lent, we submit ourselves to the discipline of Ash Wednesday. For the next Forty Days, we will prepare ourselves to enter more deeply into the Paschal Mystery, the Suffering, Death, and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the time of the Liturgical Year most notably dedicated to prayer, penance, and helping others.

The spirit of the Lenten Season is well expressed in the Collect (Opening Prayer) of today’s Mass: “Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.” The Prayer over the Offerings adds: “As we solemnly offer the annual sacrifice for the beginning of Lent, we entreat you, O Lord, that, through works of penance and charity, we may turn away from harmful pleasures and, cleansed from our sins, may become worthy to celebrate devoutly the Passion of your Son.”

The Lenten Season implores us, in the words of St. Paul, to “be reconciled to God.” This is both a decision we make today, for “now is the day of salvation,” and a lifelong process of conversion of heart, as we grow in communion with God and with one another. The grace of conversion is not a magical event that happens without personal cooperation. Neither is it accomplished by our own effort alone. In order to grow in self-knowledge, to recognize the depth of our sinfulness, and to make radical changes in our attitudes and behavior, we need God’s grace and mercy, as well as the support of our community, family, and friends. This is why we begin, as the first reading urges us, by returning to God with our whole heart. It is not enough to have ashes placed on our heads, for the Lord tells us, “rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD your God.”

In today’s Gospel Jesus outlines for us how we can best fulfill our part in the process of conversion. He gives us a Lenten program which calls us to interiority and authentic religion. Lent is not about performing righteous deeds for people to see! It is about our relationship of love with God (prayer) and our love for others (almsgiving), both made possible by our constant effort in the practice of self-denial (fasting).

Throughout every day we make a series of personal choices. Every choice has consequences. Every choice brings us closer to God or away from him. In this holy Season, then, we make greater effort to choose always what is in accord with God’s will – what is right, good, and loving, rather than what is comfortable, pleasant, and easy. This effort always involves a battle against our tendency to self-indulgence. Fasting that is merely superficial compliance with the law will not have much effect. Let us take advantage of this special day and this holy Season as an opportunity to be more selfless, more humane and mindful of others, more sensitive to the needy, more sensible in our actions, and more vigilant in choosing what is good, noble, and true. In our acts of self-denial, our guiding principle should be selfless love.

Our Lent will be more fruitful if we strive to perform specific deeds of mercy and kindness to specific people in our lives. How can we express our love in concrete ways that affirm the wellbeing of others, especially the poor and the sick? In making our plans for Lent, we should be guided by the Church’s tradition of practicing the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. To feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit those in prison, visit the sick, and bury the dead – these practical actions are signs of our desire to love as we are loved. The prophets remind us that these are a better way of fasting (cf. Is 58:6-8). We can also be effective agents of spiritual transformation through efforts to instruct the ignorant, admonish the sinner, counsel the doubtful, comfort the sorrowful, bear wrongs patiently, forgive injuries, and pray for the living and the dead. Though we ourselves are sinners in great need of mercy, we can serve as “ambassadors for Christ” as he works through us to bring healing, conversion, and renewal.

What is my map for the journey as I prepare to enter this most holy Season of Lent? Why is prayer, fasting, and almsgiving necessary for me to have a deeper relationship with God? How can I make selfless love my guiding principle during this Lent?

Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 20, no. 3. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.