Preparing for Lent

It’s hard to believe that Lent begins so soon, but tomorrow is already Ash Wednesday. At least all the snow and the likelihood of subzero temperatures next week where I live make the upcoming penitential season a little easier to welcome.

In the readings for Mass today*, two themes strike me. In the Gospels, Jesus rebukes those around him who follow the letter of the law and human tradition rather than God’s law, which is the law of love. Jesus worries not so much about purification rituals but about eating with those who most need his companionship–sinners, marginalized people, the poor, and also Pharisees and self-righteous individuals who need him in a different way. Jesus also criticizes religious leadership for following the exact letter of the law rather than guiding  people to use good judgment, for example, to use funds to care for their aging parents rather than to declare it off limits for religious purposes.

As Lent arrives, it’s helpful for us to focus less on the letter of the laws of observance and more on what those observances point to. It’s not that we ought not fast, or receive ashes, or pray and be charitable with our material goods. But these observances exist because they point to something deeper: to a need to feel real sorrow for our sins; to express it in a corporate way with others, who are just as in need of God’s healing mercy as we are; to pray for others and to act with love for others out of the depths of our hearts. Traditions like those that form a part of Lenten practices (a season of increased fasting, praying, and giving) exist because they help to habituate us into the right kinds of actions, but even deeper than the actions themselves is the underlying motivation for their expression. When Jesus quotes Isaiah (“This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”), he is asking us to plumb the depths of our own hearts to see what still needs internal purification, the purification of the heart, so that all that is left within is love.

The two earlier readings speak of God’s dwelling place and show that God cannot be contained in a physical temple. Where does God dwell? In us, in our own human hearts. Yet God is not only there, but cannot be contained in that temple, and like water from a fountain, has to flow out. God is also present in other human beings around me, whether the homeless man on the subway, an aging parent, or a colleague. God is present in the cosmos, the natural world that is God’s handiwork.

So one way to think about preparing for Lent is to ask where the places are that we recognize God’s dwelling, and where have we failed to recognize it? Do I see that Christ in the other, in my very own heart, and also in the wider cosmos? Where have I failed to see, and so failed to respond in love? Where is God extending mercy to me personally and to my communities, and calling us into greater love? Where is my own love (whose source is in God’s own love) still in need of purification, so that the flame of love can burn larger and more freely?