Lent is many things.
It’s a spring-cleaning – of our lives, our souls. It’s a stock-taking. Or think of a shop getting rid of surplus stock by way of a sale; it’s a time for ridding our lives of the redundant and superfluous. Maybe, practically too, a time for giving away what we don’t really need and someone else might. People go on a diet or to the gym or jogging or swimming: physical exercise for the sake of their health. It’s a good thing (in moderation!). Lent’s a time of spiritual exercise, which is an even better thing (cf. 1 Tim 4:7). St Paul actually says it: do spiritual gymnastics. Train yourself spiritually. It’s good for this life and for the next (cf 1 Tim 4: 6, 8). Lent’s a time for gardening our hearts, pulling up some of the weeds and giving the good things space to grow.
There are many images for Lent. The word ‘Lent’ comes from ‘lengthen’. It originally meant ‘spring’, the season of lengthening days. So it’s a time for letting God’s daylight in, letting his light have a longer reach in us, into the dark corners: the light of his word and his grace. I noticed today’s wind. There was something kind and cleansing and hopeful about it. It’s as if nature was being cleaned in view of spring. God’s springtime comes with the Resurrection. Jesus rises from the dead in an April garden. And the springtime of our souls is living as risen members of his risen Body, blown clean of sin by the wind of the Spirit and enjoying the sunshine of the Father’s love.
Then again – today’s Gospel – Lent is prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Prayer for our relationship with God, the Father who sees us in secret; fasting for our relationship with things and our bodies, God’s creation; almsgiving for our relationship with others, who are our brothers and sisters. So the whole circle of our life is there: all to be drawn closer to heaven.
This is ‘the favourable time; now is the day of salvation.’ So St Paul. This is the time to be reconciled with God. ‘For our sake God made the sinless one into sin’ – on the Cross – ‘so that in him we might become the goodness of God’ – thanks to his resurrection from the dead. What a thought! That we can become ‘the goodness of God’: a window letting in that light, a vessel, a chalice holding that precious liquid.
‘Have mercy on us, O Lord, for we have sinned’ was the response of the Psalm. ‘Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness. In your compassion blot out my offence.’ That’s how that wonderful Psalm 50 begins: David’s prayer for mercy after his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband, Uriah. I’m going backwards through the readings, and they seem to take us deeper. Lent is a cry for mercy: mercy for each of us, mercy for all of us together, the Christian community, mercy for the whole world. The world’s so full of violence at the moment, planned and random all at once. We don’t just keep Lent to look good in the spiritual mirror, as it were. We keep it for the world. When we sin, we drag the world down. When we rise above ourselves, we raise the world. This is a responsibility our faith gives us. So we pray with the prophet Joel, ‘Spare your people, Lord! Do not make your heritage a thing of shame!’ ‘For he is all tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in graciousness and ready to relent.’ Don’t we so, so need this tenderness, this compassion, this graciousness: the tenderness of the Father, the compassion of the Son, the graciousness of the Holy Spirit? Doesn’t the whole world need it? Don’t Syria and Iraq and Ukraine and Nigeria, and the hearts of the men of violence? Let’s offer our Lent together as brothers and sisters in Christ, the Church of God in this place. Let’s offer it as one great prayer, joined to the prayer of Christ on the Cross, the prayer that brings the tenderness of God into the world!
And here’s the best line of all: ‘Who knows if he will not turn again, will not relent, will not leave a blessing as he passes, oblation and libation for the Lord your God?’ It’s not just we who turn and repent, it’s the Lord. He turns against himself, his mercy overcomes his justice (cf Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est 10, 12). And he ‘leaves a blessing as he passes’. Lent is the passing of God, 40 days of grace. We want to touch him, catch him as he passes. It’s like today’s wind blowing through the town. It’s like the invisible presence which parted the Red Sea and let the people of Israel pass through dry foot. Lent is Christ going up to Jerusalem to keep the Passover, to pass from this world to the Father. Let’s go up and pass over with him, lest, as St Augustine says, we pass away with this passing world. And as he passes, he ‘leaves a blessing’. Joel was saying this to a land stripped of everything green and nourishing by a plague of locusts, leaving people and animals without food, in danger of death, unable to offer worship in the temple because that depended on cereals and wine – and there wasn’t any. And so the ‘blessing’ is the return of fertility: the budding crops and the swelling grapes. It’s ‘oblation and libation for the Lord our God’. It’s the gift of worship and praise given back to us with the resurrection of Christ and the dewfall of the Spirit. It means we come back, we come back, full of song, carrying our sheaves (Ps 125).
So, there it is. Today we “begin… [our] campaign of Christian service”. There’s so much to help us: the readings and prayers of the liturgy, the Station Masses, the Stations of the Cross, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the SCIAF collection half-way through, our catechumens to think of. Let’s be practical about it: give something bad or unnecessary up, take something good on. And cry with all our heart for the mercy of God!