Lent only makes sense for those who know that they are sinners. Other good people might engage in Lenten disciplines of fasting and penance, but these practices will only bear fruit for the one who humbly acknowledges their personal sinfulness and sincerely seeks the mercy of God.
This might be why for many Catholics the season of Lent is no different from any other, and fasting and penance are little more than topics in a Church history course. Personal acknowledgement of sin is not particularly fashionable.
It is helpful for us to remember that in the northern hemisphere, these are springtime days, and the word “Lent” in Old English, means “springtime.” Here, down-under, signs of autumn abound, with cooler mornings and evenings, and the leaves beginning to turn.
The invitation of these Lenten weeks is to become “reconciled to God” (ref. second reading for Ash Wednesday Mass)
And that’s our simple aim in Lent: to become aware of any way in which we do not feel at peace with God, since these are the thoughts, attitudes, patterns of behaviour, fears and actions that are preventing us from living happily and abundantly.
Lenten prayer and fasting (note the two are always spoken of together) serve to focus the mind and heart on the one on whom we are dependant for everything, indeed every breath is a gift that is given to us.
While we might try to savour our successes in silent prayer, it is our weakness, fear and failure that keeps breaking into our consciousness. This difficult awareness is a healthy fruit of true prayer since God continues to offer us abundant life and we reject this gift settling for survival as sinners. CS Lewis put it vividly:
“it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased”. The Weight of Glory, CS Lewis, 1941
So it’s no surprise then that when we sit to hear the scriptures at an Ash Wednesday Mass that the first words we hear are “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart”(Joel 1). It is our sinfulness that renders us “half-hearted creatures” and calling someone half-hearted is no compliment.
These Lenten weeks are a time of spring-cleaning, a time of letting go of all that clutters our minds and hearts distracting us from Christ who is the one whom every healthy human heart whole-heartedly seeks.