Returning to the Lord: A Lenten Reflection
“Return to me with your whole heart.” (Joel 2:12)
I always loved Lent growing up. This season of preparation leading up to Easter always came with great anticipation in my household. As a child, I enjoyed competing with my brothers to see who could go the longest without breaking our fast, adding enough coins to the rice bowl so that it would rattle around, and getting creative with meat-free Friday meals. Let’s just say I was, above all, motivated by the challenge.
When it came to the Lenten obligations of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, we always did something to fulfill each requirement. I remember going to every Ash Wednesday Mass and Holy Week service, and going to church to pray the Stations of the Cross the week before Easter. Most often, I would give up chocolate, ice cream, or another sweet treat, although it was guaranteed I would find a work-around that would allow me to still satisfy my sweet tooth! I also remember giving my dollar for Friday Snack during recess to the rice bowl instead of buying a snack for myself. At one point, my parents proposed that each time we wanted to go out to eat, we would instead make a simple meal at home and put the money we would have spent into the rice bowl. I loved policing that system (it’s amazing how gratifying it is to be generous with other people’s money…!). Every Friday, I looked forward to one of three meals: grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, cream pea and potato soup, or fish sticks. I really grew accustomed to these Friday meals and definitely enjoyed them more than I was supposed to.
From my perspective at the time, I seemed to be “checking all the boxes” of my Lenten duties as a Catholic - but what I never understood until much later in my life was that there was a massive missing piece through all of our Lenten traditions. Although I was doing all the right things (or so it seemed), year after year, I didn’t really understand the purpose. If someone had asked me why I was wearing ashes on my forehead on Ash Wednesday or why I wasn’t eating Friday Snack, I wouldn’t have been able to give a valid justification. This routine, “check-the-box” approach to the faith has been an overarching theme in my spiritual life since a young age. We can become so accustomed to going through the motions of the faith that we can lose sight of the “why” behind the truths that we believe and the traditions we continue to observe. When it comes to things like making the sign of the cross, genuflecting towards the tabernacle, or responding at appropriate times during mass, I find that it is easy to slip into auto-pilot and to carry out traditions without mindful intention. At some point in time, I realized that all those years of giving up chocolate did not actually bring me closer to Christ or help me grow in virtue, which is the whole purpose of Lent! My mindset was strictly, “I am doing this because I need to give something up”.
Now don’t get me wrong: giving up sweets can definitely challenge us to grow in certain virtues, such as temperance or self control. Some might take those moments of temptation and offer up intercessory prayer or prayers of thanksgiving for all the good things the Lord has filled their lives with. What a beautiful way this is to unite our sufferings to the cross of Christ and to be drawn back to Him. But as a child, I definitely did not approach my fasting this way and thus it was not very fruitful/did not accomplish the end goal. Anytime we remove something from our life, it creates a hole which, naturally, we will find some way to fill. In years past, I would remove certain earthly things from my life and fill that space with more earthly things. I eventually came to realize that when fasting and making space, we are meant to fill those spaces with Christ.
As I prepared for Lent this year, I found myself asking, “What do I need to detach myself from?” and “How is God inviting me to attach myself to him?” I thought of a number of things in my life right off the bat that compete for my time with and attention towards God that I needed to strip myself from as I journey through this Lenten season.
It is in my human nature to resort to self-sufficiency, trying to muster up strength of my own to follow through with the plans I set forth for prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. It is to no avail that I struggle to uphold my Lenten promises when I do not keep Jesus at the center of it all and neglect to turn back frequently to receive His grace.
As I continued to pray about what my focus should be this Lent, I found myself sitting with the readings from Ash Wednesday. I was really struck by the first reading from Joel Chapter 2: “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord your God. For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment.” What a beautiful invitation we are given: to return to Jesus with our whole heart and to use fasting as a means of drawing closer to the Lord! And to think, all those years of fasting that arguably lead me further away from Christ by pushing me towards envy and impatience.
So often do I give Jesus only part of my heart when I get distracted during prayer or when I go throughout my day without being mindful of God’s presence. I am so quick to forget the most basic truths: that I am made for relationship with God, that He has invited me to share in His blessed life, and that I need to allow Christ to reign on the throne of my heart daily. It is easy for me to neglect my need for prayer and the sacraments, but I find peace knowing that the Lord delights in me every moment I choose to turn back to Him, no matter how far I’ve fallen astray. There is great beauty in this season of repentance, this season of turning back, and so much grace!
It can be easy to lose sight of the purpose behind our Lenten sacrifices as we journey towards Easter. I find comfort in knowing that as we begin journeying into the desert, that we are not alone: Jesus is our companion through this season, and it is by His grace and His strength that we can resist temptation and be sanctified through the sacrifices we offer up. As we prepare to enter into the joy of Easter Sunday, may we look to the cross of Christ as our hope and our reminder of the purpose of our Lenten traditions. I pray that in every moment of temptation, we would turn towards Christ, and that we may become ever more dependent on Him as our source of life, hope and truth!