The holy season of Lent is upon us once again. And it is not unusual for us to hear in church scripture readings, prayers, and songs calling on God to have mercy on us. We are reminded of our faults and our sinfulness in very humbling ways. We are called upon to make peace with our God and with our neighbor, to admit the wrong we have done, that we have been careless, and vengeful, and petty, and inconsiderate. We are encouraged to hold our tongue, to swallow our pride, and to plead with God for forgiveness and healing, for our half-hearted effort, for our complacency, for our stubbornness of heart. It might do us good to peel away such layers of indifference and self-righteousness that have collected over time. The sort of transformation to which we are called is not meant to be superficial or temporary. Rather, we are invited to become more like Jesus Christ. And once transformed, there can be no going back.
A good number of us can describe ourselves as essentially good people who just happen to blurt out a few bad words occasionally, who gossip about our neighbors every now and again, who have difficulty forgiving those who offend us, who tell harmless white lies, and who ignore the poor and hungry and needy on a regular basis. When we embrace the season of Lent halfheartedly, without any real intention of being transformed by God’s grace, we get what we come for—a smudge of ashes on our forehead, a few more prayers and bible reading in our daily routine, the occasional fast from junk food or mindless entertainment if we remember, but little or nothing to make us more patient or forgiving, or to draw us closer to the poor, or to the compassionate heart of God. And come Easter and the feast of New Life, we are stuck in our old life of cursing, gossiping, impatience, dishonesty, and indifference. We discover that we are not one bit transformed. And come Lent next year, we return to repeat the cycle.
The prophet Joel describes for us a very public communal observance of penance and renewal, with fasting and weeping and mourning. Those gathered in assembly are led by their ministers in prayer and lamentation. But even with such moving displays of penitence and faith, there is a danger we might merely be going through the motions, that we are just putting our religion on display. How we avoid this depends on us. Will we allow God’s grace to transform us deep within so that our fasting and weeping and mourning may express a sincere desire for the new life God offers us?
The gospel passage from St. Matthew invites us to observe the traditional practices of Lent—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. But Jesus reminds us that we draw a greater benefit when we are less concerned about how other people see us, but rather that our Father sees into our hearts a sincere desire to be transformed. When we pray, we speak to God’s heart and we listen for God’s voice. When we fast, we join ourselves in solidarity with those who hunger and thirst for bodily nourishment, so we recognize our own hunger and thirst for God. When we give alms, we share God’s blessings with those in need, and we bring their deeper hunger and thirst to God when we pray. So the practices of Lent build on each other, a sincere effort not put on for show.
St. Paul calls us, as he called the church of Corinth, to be reconciled with God. In this Lenten season, God pours out his grace in great abundance upon his church. “Do not receive the grace of God in vain.” When all we do is go through the motions, when we pray and fast and give alms so that we can score some brownie points, when our Lenten observance does not truly express our sincere desire to be made new, we walk away hungry from the abundant table of God’s grace and blessing. We know Lent will come around again next year, as it does every year. So we convince ourselves we will do better next year. But now is a very acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation. We should grab this opportunity. There is no guarantee next year will come for all of us.
Now God offers us his mercy and compassion that we might come to know forgiveness for our sins and reconciliation with one another. Typically when we hear of God’s mercy and compassion, we imagine ourselves merely as recipients because God has already completed his saving work in the glorious passion, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. But this Lenten season, let us place ourselves at the service of God’s mercy and compassion so that forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with one another may be shared with all who journey alongside us. St. Paul was an ambassador for Christ to the people of Corinth. So we too can be ambassadors for Christ to the people in our own lives. By our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, we can draw others to nourishment for their souls. By our sincere expression of repentance for our sins, we can more intentionally invite others to experience God’s mercy and compassion as well.
The next time we encounter our neighbor, we can choose to set aside our cynicism and our lack of confidence in the inherent goodness of human nature. We can express a more sincere hope and faith in those we encounter, knowing that God’s mercy and compassion are already at work in their lives. We can give a more authentic and joyful witness to our faith that is often lacking in some who call themselves Christian. We can show more sincere gratitude for the goodness of God by warmly welcoming all who seek a reason for our joy.
This season of Lent is a season of God’s tremendous mercy and compassion, a time to experience most intimately the loving embrace of God’s forgiveness, healing, and peace. But it is also a time to extend to those we meet a hand in friendship, a smile to welcome, and a deep and sincere assurance of God’s care for them. They might not know about Lent. They might not care that we pray, fast, or give alms. They might be unaware that God desires to reconcile them with himself and with all his people. So we cannot pass up the opportunity to share with God’s people our joy in the knowledge of his mercy and compassion. Now is a very acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation. “Do not receive the grace of God in vain.”
Rolo B Castillo © 2016