Today begins the great season of Lent, forty days of preparation for the celebration of Jesus' resurrection from the dead. We begin this season by gathering on a Wednesday, interrupting our weekly schedules, to acknowledge before God and one another that we are sinners. Our lives have not reflected the joy and love of the good news of Jesus. And so we resolve throughout these forty days, with the help of God's grace, to pray, to fast and to give to the poor as a sign of our desire to change and as a means of strengthening ourselves against temptation.
The word "Lent" comes from an old English word for "springtime". During these days, the long, cold winter is coming to an end and spring with its promise of warmth and new life bursts forth. We will all go into our yards and gardens during these weeks to clear out any leaves left behind from the Fall and clean up all the damage done by winter's cold weather. In the same way, we must each enter the garden of our hearts to clear away the debris left behind by our sinful choices and clean up the damage done in our soul every time we turned away from our Heavenly Father. We are stepping out of the cold winter of sin and turning our lives over to the warmth and light of a new Spring of grace, love and mercy.
It is not only warmer weather which we think about as Spring approaches. The Spring is also a season we typically associate with love. The warmer weather not only brings forth new life in nature, it also stirs our hearts with the desire to give ourselves to another, to find a companion to share the sunny days with. These forty days of Lent are also a time for us to grow in love with God and with our neighbor. It is a time for us to catch a "Spring fever" for Jesus. And so whatever we choose to give up for Lent, whatever good works we resolve to perform, are only worthwhile if they draw us into a closer, more loving relationship with God. We must change not only our behavior, but our hearts. The prophet Joel tells us in the first reading that we are to "rend our hearts, not our garments, and return to the Lord". These forty days will be a success not if we lose a few pounds but if we gain a new heart. The new life which the Springtime of Lent offers will only be real and lasting in our lives if it makes us more compassionate and more sensitive to the needs of our neighbor.
At this point, we have already decided what we are going to give up for Lent. However we must ask ourselves if there is any way that we can make our sacrifice beneficial for someone in need. Traditionally, Christians have taken the money they saved from their Lenten sacrifice whether it be going without coffee or not going out to eat as often and given it to the poor. Others have resolved to give their free time to volunteer work with the needy. Whatever we choose to do, our Lenten fast will be most pleasing in the eyes of our Heavenly Father if it leads to the hungry being fed, the naked being clothed and the sick being cared for. The best Lenten sacrifices are those which not only deprive us of something we enjoy but which at the same time enrich those who are themselves deprived. And hopefully it will lead us to live a simpler life, consuming less of the world's goods, so that we can have more left over to give to the poor. Then the springtime of God's love and justice will not only arise in our hearts but in our world.
God loves us and offers us his friendship in Jesus. No matter how we may have sinned, he is always ready to welcome us back. The great sign of that mercy is the cross upon which Jesus, his Son, gave his life. We draw that cross in ashes on our foreheads to acknowledge to the world that our hope is in the cross of Christ. And we resolve throughout these forty days to practice prayer, fasting and almsgiving as a way of strengthening ourselves to take up our own cross. We also resolve to show God's mercy to a needy world by helping others to carry the cross of poverty, sickness and loneliness. Such is the fast which pleases our Heavenly Father. It is in just such a way that we store up treasure for ourselves in heaven. And it is in just such a way that we can be assured that this Lenten season will be a Springtime of new life for us.