Today the Church celebrates Ash Wednesday, ‘the beginning of her Lenten journey towards Easter. The entire Christian community is invited to live this period of forty days as a pilgrimage of repentance, conversion and renewal. In the Bible, the number forty is rich in symbolism. It recalls Israel’s journey in the desert: a time of expectation, purification and closeness to the Lord, but also a time of temptation and testing. It also evokes Jesus’ own sojourn in the desert at the beginning of his public ministry, a time of profound closeness to the Father in prayer, but also of confrontation with the mystery of evil. The Church’s Lenten discipline is meant to help deepen our life of faith and our imitation of Christ in his paschal mystery. In these forty days may we draw nearer to the Lord by meditating on his word and example, and conquer the desert of our spiritual aridity, selfishness and materialism. For the whole Church may this Lent be a time of grace in which God leads us, in union with the cruciﬁed and risen Lord, through the experience of the desert to the joy and hope brought by Easter.’
Fasting, repentance, prayer, and the imposition of ashes were not unknown to Jews; that is why we as Christians carry on the tradition. The advice given by the prophet Joel in today’s ﬁrst reading is both wise and salutary as we enter the desert of Lent. It reminds us that, ﬁrst and foremost, we are to recognise our own brokenness, our own sinfulness, our own turning away from a God of Love and Mercy. While we may recognise this, any outward sign is not good enough. There is nothing that we can do in a solely exterior fashion – ripping our clothes, placing ashes upon our foreheads, which will, in itself, make a blind bit of difference. What matters, where it really counts, is on the inside. To rend one’s heart, is to lay ourselves open, to make ourselves vulnerable, and in this openness and vulnerability, to let God do his work.
It would be all too easy when faced with today’s Gospel to argue that outward displays of fasting, piety, and penitence, are criticised, that they do notmatter. But this is not what Jesus is getting at. What he criticises are deeds which are done to comply with the letter but not the spirit of the law. This mechanised approach to piety, a clinging to the external nature of religion, without any concern for its inward spiritual aspect, is where the fault lies. When things are done for show, when our piety is paraded as performance, so that the world may see how good and religious we are, then we are nothing but an empty shell, a whitened sepulchre. The reward which such people receive is likewise an empty one.
Instead, Jesus upholds the standard practice of Jewish cult, but what matters is that what is done outwardly is completely in accordance with our interior life, it is an outward manifestation of our relationship with God and with one another. So Lent is to be a time when we as Christians are to seek to be reconciled, to be in full communion with God and his church. Our outward acts of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving need to be done in tandem with, rather than instead of, paying attention to our interior life: otherwise our efforts are doomed to failure. The God whom we worship is one of inﬁnite love and mercy, which will be demonstrated most fully and perfectly on Good Friday, when we see what that love means, when for our sake God made him who was without sin into sin, so that we in him might become the goodness of God. Or as St Isaac puts it ‘as a handful of sand thrown into the ocean, so are the sins of all flesh as compared with the mind of God.’ As dreadful as we might be, as utterly undeserving of the father’s love, nonetheless, as the parable of the prodigal son shows us, there are no lengths to which God will not go. The love and mercy which flows from Jesus’ stricken side upon the cross at Calvary are still being poured out over the world, and will continue to be so until all is reconciled in him. In his commission of Peter after his resurrection, Jesus entrusts to his church the power to forgive sins, to reconcile us to one another and to God. This reconciliation is manifested by our restoration to communion with God and his Church.
It is not the most comfortable or pleasant thing to see ourselves as we really are. To stand naked in front of a full length mirror is for most of us, I suspect, not the most pleasant experience. And yet, such a self-examination is as nothing when compared with us baring our heart and soul. It is not a pleasant task, but given that God will judge us in love and mercy, having taken away our sins upon the cross, despite our apprehension we have nothing to fear. All that awaits us is the embrace of a loving father. No matter how many times we fail, how many times we would run away or reject his love, his arms, like those of his son upon the cross, remain open to embrace the world, to heal the wounds of sin and division.
If there are any of you determined to live a more Christian life, there is one resolution you need to make which is, out of all proportion, more important than the rest. Resolve to pray, to receive the sacraments, to shun besetting sins, to do good works – all excellent resolutions; but more important than any of these is the resolution to repent. The more resolutions you make, the more you will break. But it does not matter how many you break so long as you are resolute not to put off repentance when you break them, but to give yourself up to the mercy which will not despise a broken and a contrite heart. Converted or unconverted, it remains true of you that in you, that is, in your natural being, there dwells no good thing. Saints are not people who store goodness in themselves, they are just a people who do not delay to repent, and whose repentances are honourable.
So then, may this Lent be for us all a time of repentance, a time for us to turn away from all which separates us from God and neighbour, a time for reconciliation, for healing and growth, that the faith which we profess may grow in our souls and be shown forth in our lives to give Glory to God the Father, to whom with God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever