Cycle A | Lent | Week 1
– By Fr Ugo Ikwuka
“Now, now, come back to me with all your hearts…. Let your hearts be broken, not your garments torn!” With these penetrating words of the Prophet Joel, the liturgy of Ash Wednesday introduces the season of Lent, indicating that the central message of the season is the conversion of heart. Conversion is above all a grace that opens the heart to God’s infinite love. It means opening oneself to the life-giving words of Jesus and obediently following in his footprints, along the path that leads to Calvary, unto complete self-giving.
The message challenges us all and reminds us that conversion is not just about external observances, vague resolutions or giving up of minor pleasures but something that involves and transforms the whole person from within. It is a journey in which we are to die daily to our selfishness and self-absorption in order to make room for God, who opens and transforms our hearts. It is a journey which challenges our normal routine and in which we are to force open our eyes and ears, but especially our heart to others whom we risk forgetting.
Today’s Gospel highlights the elements of this spiritual journey back to God as prayer, fasting and almsgiving. All three affirm that what counts is not appearance; the value of life does not depend on the approval of others or on success, but on what lies within. It is the quality and the truthfulness of our relationship with God that reveal the authenticity of any religious practice.
Prayer is the strength of the believer. In the weakness and fragility of our life, we can turn to God with the confidence of children. In the face of so many forces that threaten us, we are called to plunge ourselves into the sea of prayer, which is the sea of the boundless love of God, to experience His tender care.
Fasting is a “wake-up call for the soul”. It is a sign of awareness and sensitivity in the face of injustices especially in dealings with the poor. It trains the heart to the essentials and to sharing. It entails the choice of responsible life, which does not waste. Fasting makes sense, not when it makes us feel good as it does when we are watching weight, but if it truly breaks our security, and also benefits others. Above all, it is a sign of the trust that we place in God and in His providence.
Almsgiving promotes selflessness because alms are given to someone from whom we do not expect a return. Selflessness must be one of the characteristics of a Christian, who, aware of having received everything freely from God without any merit, learns to give to others freely. Almsgiving helps us to live the selflessness of gift which is freedom from the obsession of possession. Today, with price tag on everything, giving freely is becoming rare. Almsgiving represents a specific way to assist those in need and, at the same time, an exercise in self-denial to free us from attachment to worldly goods.
Thus, Lent reminds us that Christian life is a never-ending combat in which the “weapons” of prayer, fasting and penance are used to fight “principalities” and “powers” which are primarily the twin evils of selfishness and hate. Dying to oneself to live in God is the journey of self-denial every disciple of Jesus is called to make with humility and patience, with generosity and perseverance.
The ash signifies that sin reduces us to death and nothingness while the cross signed with the ash is what delivered us from sin and death. Lent is thus a journey of hope, towards the joy of Easter, the victory of life over death. Today, as we live in an increasing artificial world of “activities” that could unwittingly exclude God from our affairs, Lent awakens us to the recognition that we are still vulnerable and dependent creatures, not the creator. In asserting his independence, modern man becomes his own slave and often finds himself inconsolably alone.
The invitation to convert is thus a call to return to the loving arms of God, a caring and merciful Father, to trust him, to entrust oneself to him like adopted children, regenerated by his love. The prophet Joel was clear on the urgency of the call: “Now, now….” St Paul echoes this in the Second Reading, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Cor 6:2). We cannot let this moment pass because it is given to us as a unique and unrepeatable opportunity.
Disturbingly, after today, many will disappear to reappear on the Easter stage. But the stars we admire on stage put in a lot of practice before their appearance, and so do the saints, the stars on the stage of life. Lent offers us the opportunity for the training that leads up to shining on the stage of life. Research shows that it takes about 67 days for a new habit to be internalised. With these 40 days we can make a good head start.