Jl 2:12-18 | Ps 51 | 2 Cor 5:20-6:2 | Mt 6:1-6, 16-18
Today we observe the beginning of Lent—a time of fasting, penance, and almsgiving. During this sacred time before the celebration of Easter, we are called to turn away from our sins and turn more faithfully toward the Gospel.
How do we do this? In the Catholic Church, we begin by observing this day with fasting and penitential prayer. And when we leave today, we will have received ashes upon our heads—a visible reminder that we are dust, and to dust we will return. These same ashes also symbolize grief—reminding us that through our sins, we have distanced ourselves from God. Wearing these ashes (which come from the blessed branches from Palm Sunday last year) we acknowledge that we are mortal and our time here on earth is short.
But as Christians, we also know that this earth is not our final destination. We know that Christ died for our sins, and through him, we have hope in the resurrection. We are a hopeful people and remain an Easter people. We have new life in Christ. Our hope as Christians is to one day reach our eternal home in heaven. Until then, we are in exile here on earth. This past year (and still now) has perhaps felt like an exile more than ever before. Our passage through this earthly life is meant to be a preparation for eternal life, just as the penitential season of Lent is meant to be a preparation for the joyful celebration of Easter. So to prepare for Easter and to prepare for our eternal home, we have to be cleansed of our earthly natures. We have to leave sin behind. From Psalm 51, we heard proclaimed today a wonderful prayer that I invite all of us to pray on our Lenten journey: “A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.”
We also heard from Second Corinthians that we shouldn’t delay. “Now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” We may think we have a lot of time to prepare, but in reality, we never know how long God will grant us the gift of our earthly lives. We are warned in Matthew (25:13), “Stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
This season of Lent is an acceptable time for us to return with all our hearts and minds to the One who fashioned each one of us out of dust and breathed life into us. From the book of Joel, we hear the personal call God is making to each one of us: “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.”
It is an acceptable time for us to wake up to the ways that we separate ourselves from God—through our sinful natures, through our character defects, through our addictions. During Lent, we are invited to listen more deeply for God’s guidance and prayerfully examine those things in us that must be rooted out so that we can grow closer to him.
So to better hear his voice, I encourage us to spend time cultivating our relationship with God this Lenten season.
In today’s gospel, from Matthew (6), Jesus instructs us how to approach this time with God: “When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” Maybe this means waking up a little earlier, spending time in prayer, reaching out to God in the silence of your heart, and meditating on the Scriptures. Pray before you read. Ask God to open your ears, mind, and heart to what He wants you to hear and take with you as your spiritual food for that day. Listen with the ear of your heart for that word or phrase that you can carry with you as your daily bread.
My prayer for all of us today is that God grants us the grace to turn wholeheartedly back to Him this Lenten season, and that He grants each one of us the peace and joy that comes from a full communion and reunion with Him.
And as the father welcomed the Prodigal Son with open arms, just so, our heavenly Father waits eagerly with open arms for our return.