During Lent, we are preaching a new series that we are calling “Metanoia!” Yes, it is a Greek word, the language in which the New Testament was written. And no, we are not trying to be fancy. We are using metanoia because this is probably the worse translation of a single word in the whole of the Bible.
When Jesus returns from the desert, he says “Metanoia!” and traditionally we hear the English verb “Repent!” When we hear “repent” we automatically think of sin. When we hear “repent” we think about something specific we did wrong, for which we show remorse, nothing else necessarily. The word metanoia really means “change,” a “change of heart,” “a change of mentality,” “transformation,” and in religious terms, conversion. All these definitions are wider, and more dynamic—and more what we are called to do during Lent—than repentance. We are not saying that sin does not exist, rather that repentance may be just one step in the process of change, and we may find out that some of the things we need to change are not even sins.
Embracing the centuries-old wisdom of the Church, during Lent we are asked to consider the three Lenten Observances: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. As we said in our previous post, they are to become habits (you know, you do them for a period of time and habits form behavior.) As we read—like every year on the 1st Sunday of Lent—the passage of the Temptations, I propose that we understand the Lenten observances as going against three temptations we may all experience.
Prayer goes against the temptation to live as if God did not exist.
Fasting goes against the temptation to live as if the others did not exist.
Almsgiving goes against the temptation to live as if the poor did not exist.
When we say we believe in God but we do not pray to Him, we are falling into the temptation of living as if God did not exist. We worry more than we pray (when, as we have said before, worry is a dialogue with ourselves about things we do not control; prayer is a dialogue with God about things God controls already!) The model of prayer for Lent (directly from the gospel we read on Ash Wednesday) is individual, silent prayer. We do not fill our time of prayer with words we have memorized. It is a very challenging type of prayer because silence is difficult, but only in silence may we hear God communicating with us.
Fasting goes against the temptation to think that others do not exist. The purpose of fasting is to symbolize externally the internal desire to empty ourselves to make room for Christ. Fasting is an invitation to give up self, our sometimes inflated sense of entitlement, our very human tendency to place ourselves first, in the center of our lives. We only fast twice a year—Ash Wednesday and Good Friday—but most of us do give up something in Lent. We could explore giving up self-serving behaviors. Fasting reminds us that we do not need as much stuff—material or not—as we provide for ourselves.
In Isaiah we read, “This is the fasting I wish: setting free the oppressed, sharing bread with the hungry, sheltering the homeless,” a Biblical citation that helps us to connect fasting with almsgiving. Almsgiving goes against the temptation to live as if the poor did not exist. We have explained this before also: if we give up something material, like many give up desert, sweets, coffee, etc., during Lent, we should give the money we save to the poor. Our fasting at this basic level would be helping someone else. As John Chrysostom said, “No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage to others.” Almsgiving is just a symbol to fight what the Holy Father has recently called “the globalization of indifference.” We fight indifference towards the marginalized learning to feel what Jesus felt with the leper: being moved with tenderness and compassion before someone’s ordeal.
This is part of what the Holy Father preached on Ash Wednesday: “Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.” “We end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.”
As Jesus proclaims today, “Change!” because the Kingdom of God is at hand. Lent becomes this time of opportunity for us. But we will only change the world, to make it look more like the Kingdom, if we first change ourselves—and we can begin by embracing the prayer, the fasting, and the almsgiving of Holy Lent.
How is your Lent going? How are you praying, fasting and giving this Lent?