Today we enter into the discipline of Lent. We will, or have received our ashes and hopefully have decided on a Lenten penance, like giving up candy, soda or adult beverages. Lent is also a time to give alms for the poor, so maybe we’ve chosen a worthy cause to donate to. These are good things, but the readings from the Masses of Ash Wednesday and the days that follow warn us that these external religious observances are not the most important part of Lent. The purpose of this holy season is repentance and conversion.
Today we hear the Prophet Joel tell us that we are to return to the Lord eagerly and completely, but in doing so we are to rend our hearts, not our garments. It was common in ancient Israel for a person doing penance to tear his cloths as an outward sign of repentance. What the prophet is saying is that this outer expression means nothing if the conversion is not real. We may be able to fool other people, we may even be able to fool ourselves, but we can never deceive God. In the reading from Matthew’s Gospel Jesus warns his disciples not to fast, do penance or give alms so that others will see them. God sees what others can not; only His judgment counts.
On Saturday we will hear the story of Jesus calling Matthew the tax collector to follow him. Tax collectors were hated during Jesus’ time because they worked for a foreign power, the Romans, and often extorted money from the people, money that went into their own pockets. Matthew leaves his old life behind, represented by his tax collector’s table that he abandons. Lent is not just a time to observe rules and regulations but it is an opportunity to change our lives. God wants us to abandon our sins and be better disciples of His Son. This is the Lenten penance most pleasing to Him.
So by all means, let us follow the discipline of this sacred time. But let us also remember that the sacrifices we make and penances we observe are to remind us of the internal purification that we need. This work can only be done by God. May our hearts be open to Our Lord’s call to conversion.