Fr. Satish Joseph
Think about this for a minute. An entire people around the globe sets aside 40 days each year to live differently than they do the other 325 days. If we look at this merely as a social phenomenon, it is a rather extraordinary thing. An entire people sets aside 40 days — not for some monetary or worldly gain but purely as an act of religious faith. And at the beginning of these 40 days, this entire people comes to church in the middle of the week and allows ashes to be imposed on their foreheads in an act of solidarity. Today, we are joined with people all over the world for this same reason. We call these 40 days the season of Lent.
The origins of Lent as a movement among a people comes directly from Scripture. Today’s first reading from the prophet Joel invites the entire community into a common purpose when he says, “Blow the trumpet in Zion! Proclaim a fast, call an assembly; Gather the people, notify the congregation; assemble the elders, gather the children and the infants at the breast.”
The number 40 is also significant. It represents the 40 years Israelites wandered in the desert and the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert. Moses was on the mountain with God for 40 days and nights. The spies explored the Promised Land for 40 days. Goliath challenged the Israelites to a fight each day for 40 days. An angel sustained Elijah with a meal in the desert for 40 days. Ezekiel bore the punishment of Israel for 40 days. God gave Nineveh 40 days to repent. 40 becomes a number that symbolizes God relationship with the people. Inspired by sacred scripture, we too set aside 40 days for Lent.
The focus of Lent is on the heart. “Return to me with your whole heart,” God says in today’s first reading (Joel 2:12) And again, “Rend your hearts and not your garments!” (Joel 2:13). As I interpret it, Lent is ‘a becoming’. Even though Lent invites us to do many things, the focus of Lent is on the heart, on a transformation, on a renewal, on ‘a becoming’.
This focus on ‘becoming’ becomes clearer in today’s gospel reading. Jesus invites his disciples to give alms, to fast, and to pray. But Jesus’ focus is not merely on performing or doing these righteous acts. His focus is on the kind of person we become because of these acts. If these acts are performed merely to draw the attention of others or to gain their admiration and praise, then these acts lose their meaning. Then we become proud, needy, and self-righteous. Rather, in performing these acts, Jesus invites to become sincere, humble, good, and righteous people. He invites us to perform these acts in a way that bring about transformation and renewal in the heart.
This Lent, then, I invite you to make it about the heart. Rather than doing, make it about a about ‘a becoming’. Instead of asking ourselves the question, “What should I do for Lent?” or “What am I giving up for Lent?” ask yourself, “Who do I become this Lent?” The best Lent is one in which we become the kind of person and people that God invites us to become - poor in spirit, meek, merciful, clean of heart, and peacemakers; people who mourn with those who mourn, and people who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The best kind of Lent is the kind in which we become a little more like Jesus.
If becoming more and more like Christ is the goal, it is worth setting 40 days aside to do this. In fact, it is something worth setting aside a lifetime.