Behold: now is the acceptable time!
Behold: now is the day of salvation!
This is the way the prophet Joel calls the Israelites, and all of us, to repentance. Repentance is an important spiritual theme for Lent: in fact, if it were not for our need for repentance, we wouldn’t need Jesus, he wouldn’t have to have taken on flesh, he wouldn’t have to suffer and die. But he did, and he did that not just because religion in those days was out of whack, or that people in that time were more in need of repentance than people in other times, including our own. He did that because we all have need of repentance, now just as much as always. Each of us is probably not evil to the core, but we all have things we need to let go of and move away from, so that we can return to the Lord. That’s repentance, and that’s what Lent is all about.
It’s so much a part of Lent that one of the two instructions we can give when someone comes to us for ashes is “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” The other, of course, is “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return.” I tend to use both of these, alternating between the two, and letting the Holy Spirit decide who hears each. I do that because I think they are both fitting reminders for us as we enter into holy Lent. We have to keep repentance, and our own return to dust one day, in our minds and hearts so that we can long for the salvation God wants to bring us.
We have come here today for all sorts of reasons. Lots of us may still have the remnants of old and bad teaching that you have to come to Church on Ash Wednesday or something horrible will happen to you, or maybe you even think that getting ashes on Ash Wednesday is what makes us Catholic. When you don’t come to Church on a regular basis, you lose contact with God and the community, and yes, that is pretty horrible, but not in a superstitious kind of way. The real reason we come to Church on this the first day of Lent is for what we celebrate on the day after Lent: the resurrection of the Lord on Easter Sunday. Through the Cross and Resurrection, Jesus has won for us salvation, and we are the grateful beneficiaries of that great gift. All of our Lenten observance, then, is a preparation for the joy of Easter.
Lent calls us to repent, to break our ties with the sinfulness and the entanglements that are keeping us tethered to the world instead of free to live with our God and receive his gift of salvation. Our Church offers us three ways to do that: fasting, prayer and almsgiving. Giving things up, spending more time in prayer and devotion, dedicating ourselves to works of charity, all of these help us to deeply experience the love of Christ as we enter into deeper relationship with him. That is Lent, and the time to begin it, as Joel tells us, is now: Now is the acceptable time! Now is the day of salvation!
And none of this, as the Gospel reminds us today, is to be done begrudgingly or half-heartedly. None of it is to be done with the express purpose of letting the world see how great we are. It is always to be done with great humility, but also with great joy. Our acts of fasting, prayer, and charity should be a celebration of who God is in our lives, and a beautiful effort to strengthen our relationship with him.
It is my prayer that this Lent can be a forty-day retreat that will bring us all closer to God. May we all hear the voice of the prophet Joel from today’s first reading: “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart!”