Lent is a season to dream – of change, conversion and transformation – through the gift of prayer our dream of overcoming sin, living in the power of the Holy Spirit and knowing God’s new life and life to the full (John 10:10) become reality.
Lent is a God given opportunity to explore the gift of prayer alongside the great themes of faith: conversion, transformation, healing and the Paschal Mystery. Prayer isn’t a passive process but involves us in a daily battle, a struggle if you like, to find time to be still and come into God’s presence.
One way to feed and nourish our prayer is by reading – Lectio Divina – Latin for ‘divine reading.’ Pope Francis’ latest encyclical Fratelli tutti on fraternal love and social friendship and his new book Let Us Dream which explores faith in the light of the global pandemic make perfect Lent reading (see page 2).
Pope Francis highlights that we are all brothers and sisters, created in the image and likeness of God, having an inalienable dignity as human beings and children of God. We are united together in the human family and answer the ancient question, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ (Genesis 4:9) with a hearty ‘Yes.’ If the Covid-19 global pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we were all in this together. Everyone should look not only to their own interests but also to the interests of others (Philippians 2:4). The pandemic shed light on how we cope in times of trial and crisis and presented an opportunity for us to examine our lives, re-evaluate our priorities, purposes and goals. Self-examination and reflection is never easy, and change is often painful and difficult. We take comfort in prayer and from reading the Scriptures, ‘Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him’ (James 1:12).
Lent, then, is a season to dream of change and conversion but also of cleansing, purification and the love of God poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. For it is in prayer that we encounter the overflowing of God’s love, which gives us the grace to reach out to our brothers and sisters, especially those on the margins, the very edges. We think especially of those needing the support of food banks, victims of domestic violence, human trafficking and sexual child abuse. The broken-hearted and downtrodden are dear to us, and we raise our voice on behalf of the poor and suffering of the world, especially the Rohingya, the Uighurs, and the Yazidi. For as Jesus taught us: ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me’ (Matthew 25:40).
We prepare our hearts for this great moment in the church’s life – when we not only dream of change but are expectant and hopeful that through the grace of repentance, contrition and turning back to God will be know an interior renewal and change of heart. Repent and believe in the gospel’ or ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ Both of these refrains can seem a little morbid, depressing even. Nevertheless, they proclaim our desire to return to God with all our heart. The ashes are a sign of conversion, truly a sign of contradiction, but also of hope and inner renewal. When we turn back to God with all our heart, soul and strength we receive in turn God’s grace and blessing. Lord, purify my heart with the treasure of the Gospel, for where my treasure is, there also is my heart. The ashes are a sign of conversion, truly a sign of contradiction, but also of hope and inner renewal. When we turn back to God with all our heart, soul and strength we receive in turn God’s grace and blessing. Lord, purify my heart with the treasure of the Gospel, for where my treasure is, there also is my heart.
Lent is a sober but need not be a sombre season. We are reminded of the need to repent and believe the gospel and also of our mortality and human frailty. The prophet Joel’s word summons a return to the Lord with all our heart, which humbles us. We discover in prayer that God is gracious, merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. St John Henry Newman chose, ‘Heart speaks unto heart’, as the motto on his coat of arms. For him, God speaks to us heart to heart, one to one and person to person. In the beginning God cried out: ‘Where are you?’ (Genesis 3:9). We reply, ‘I am here, Lord’.
We read in the Gospel: ‘Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry’ (Mt 4:1-2). Moses fasted before receiving the tablets of the Law (Ex 34:28), as did Elijah before meeting the Lord on Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:8). Fasting humbles us: the prophet Ezra, in preparation for the journey from exile back to the Promised Land, called upon the people to fast so that ‘we might humble ourselves before our God’ (Ezra 8:21). An ancient Lenten hymn exhorts: ‘Let us use sparingly words, food and drink, sleep and amusements. May we be more alert in the custody of our senses.’ Fasting reminds us that we rely and depend entirely on God.
The pandemic has introduced new words into our vocabulary – to name a few, ‘selfisolation’, ‘social distancing’ and ‘quarantine’. The word ‘quarantine’ has its roots in the Latin word ‘forty’, and one of its origins is the forty day period that ships carrying infected loads were required to stay off shore. This was and is a protective measure, but its deeper roots lie in the life of Jesus who spent forty days of testing in the desert. He came through this time of temptation and ‘angels came and looked after him’ (Mt 4:11). We too can come through times of trial and suffering enriched and renewed, as we discover the merciful presence of God in prayer.
We don’t tend to use the words like ‘alms’ or ‘almsgiving’ today – we think of ‘charitable giving’. The origin of the word ‘almsgiving’ conveys the idea of heartfelt compassion. Christian giving has the accent very much on it being hidden, without ostentation. ‘Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret’ (Mt 6:3-4). The danger of boasting is that we risk depriving ourselves of our heavenly reward (Mt 6:1-2). Our focus should be not on our glory but on God’s greater glory. We look to the widow who cast into the Temple treasury ‘all she had to live on’ (Mk 12:44). Her tiny coin is an eloquent symbol of her generosity.
‘Never keep an account of the coins you give, since this is what I always say: if, in giving alms, the left hand is not to know what the right hand is doing, then the right hand, too, should not know what it does itself.’ (St Joseph Benedict Cottolengo)
May God’s love be poured out upon us, falling like morning dew, and may the healing balm of the Father’s mercy wash away our iniquity, cleanse us from our sin and put a new song of joy and new life into our hearts.