Today we begin something really important. And I don’t mean just the smudging of our foreheads with the ashes of burnt palms. That’s just an outward sign. What I mean is the inward activity those ashes represent, what our collect prayer today calls “this campaign of Christian service.” This time of Lent is so important to us because it calls us to newness in our relationship with God, that relationship that brings us to the eternal reward for which we were created.
We have come here today for all sorts of reasons. But the most important 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 have been blessed to be 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 we are told, 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!”