“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven,” says Ecclesiastes (3:1). We begin the liturgical season of Lent on Ash Wednesday. Liturgically, Lent is a season of grace to prepare for the celebration the season of Easter. Spiritually, it is a time to draw closer to God through the discipline of prayer, fasting and abstinence, as well as alms-giving.
As we undertake personal and collective spiritual exercises during these forty days of Lent, the church calls us during this Jubilee Year of Divine Mercy to turn to God with all of heart, that he may fill us with his merciful love so as to also enrich others with the mercy of God.
The forty days of Lent is a period of intimate encounter with God and spiritual renewal, a game changing period for spiritual growth. And the number “40” has a biblical significance: it symbolizes a journey towards intimacy with God. For forty days and forty nights, Moses had a divine encounter with God on Mount Sinai, without eating or drinking (Ex. 34:28). Elijah walked for forty days and forty nights to the mountain of the Lord to encounter God (1 Kings 19:8). Jesus himself fasted and communed intimately with the Father for forty days and forty nights in preparation for his earthly ministry to teach us the value of self-denial and bodily discipline for spiritual renewal (Matt. 4:2).
There are three traditional spiritual disciplines that are expected of us during Lent. These are the three observances that Jesus speaks about in Matt. 6:1-6, 16-18. They are prayer, fasting and abstinence, as well as good works or alms-giving. To pray is to lift our minds and heart up to God as St. John Damascene says. In essence, it is to enter into a spiritual communion with God who is provident, merciful, and just.
During this period of Lent, we must endeavour to spend qualitative time with God. Spending qualitative time with God does not mean kneeling in church all day and neglecting other rightful duties and responsibilities. Neither does it mean spending longer hours of (vocal) prayers that is disturbing to our neighbours or distracting to others. That’s certainly not the right attitude to prayer.
The instruction of Jesus on prayer is clear: “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt. 6:6). The “inner room” that Jesus speaks of is the human heart. Only God has direct access to the human heart.
“I the LORD search the mind and try the heart, to give to every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings.” (Jeremiah 17:10)
So, to pray as Jesus teaches is to encounter God in the most intimate way, in the most secret part of our being. It is to truly encounter God personally in our heart. It is to speak with God heart to heart as lover speaks with the beloved.
The second traditional Lenten observance is fasting and abstinence. The 1983 Code of Canon Law makes it an obligatory that:
All Fridays through the year and the time of Lent are penitential days and times throughout the entire Church (Canon 1250)
All persons who have completed their fourteenth year are bound by the law of abstinence; all adults are bound by the law of fast (Canon 1252). The adult age bracket here is understood as those adult with good health especially between ages 18-59 years (Canon 97).
For the church, to fast is to have only one meal day, and two smaller meals which if added together would not exceed the main meal in quantity. One must equally avoid eating between meals. Such fasting is obligatory on especially Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
In context, the church understands abstinence to be refraining from consuming meat and any other food according to the prescriptions of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference.
In all of these stipulations, the church wants us to go through this Lenten season with the spirit of penance. Nothing stops anyone from going beyond these basic stipulations to do more in the spirit of penance and spiritual renewal.
The third traditional Lenten observance is the practice of alms-giving or good works. Alms are not to be given for the sake of boosting our popularity or wining human admiration. Neither should it be given out of pride or a “better-than-thou” attitude.
Jesus speaks against such forms of attitude and motives. That is why he says: “. . .when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”(Matt. 6:3-4).
For our alms-giving, good works or works of charity to be spiritually rewarding, they must be done with the right intention. Charity done through alms-giving is rewarding when it is geared towards uplifting the beneficiary to the glory of God. Alms-giving becomes rewarding when it is done for the sake of Christ and in recognition of the image of Christ that the beneficiary is. “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Matt. 25:40).
We impose ash on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday for a spiritual reason. Ash symbolizes nothingness, death or mortality. The words that accompany the imposition of ash can be chilling: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust shall you return.” Those words remind us of the shortness and nothingness of human life before God. The scriptures attest to this:
“Man is like a breath, his days are like a passing shadow” (Psalm 144:4). “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14)
The grace that goes with the imposition of ash when received with the proper disposition is the grace to enter into ourselves and repent of our sins.
The central and recurrent theme that we shall continue to hear throughout this period of Lent is the theme of repentance. The instructive message of Prophet Joel sets us off on the theme of repentance: “. . . return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil.” (Joel 2:12-13).
The game changer during this period of Lent is repentance. It is key to unlocking the mercy of God. Sacramental confession is a sure avenue for receiving divine mercy. If you have stayed away too long from sacramental confession, this is the time to return to it to receive mercy. If you have frequented the confessional so many times in a short while, this is the time to thoroughly discipline our appetite for that particular sin the constantly cripple us.
It’s time we gave up those things that drag us away from God and from loving our neighbours. It’s time to let go of past hurts and grievances. It is time to forgive that we too may be forgiven. It is time to start afresh with Christ again. That is the import of the words of St. Paul in 2 Cor. 6:2: “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” May the good Lord grant us the grace of true repentance through Christ Our Lord. Amen!