With the celebration of Ash Wednesday we have begun a new season of Lent. A new season in the Church that should be a new season in our lives. Lent is a time to prepare for Holy Week and for Easter, the Passover of our Lord. At Sacred Heart, we begin a series called “Metanoia!” The use of the original Greek word is not an attempt to be fancy. It is because this word, that is central to the Lenten imagination, is probably the worst translated word in the whole of the New Testament.
John first, and then Jesus, called for a personal “metanoia,” not exactly for repentance, as it is traditionally translated. Yes, we are sinners and we are in need of repentance. But metanoia is more aptly translated as change; a change of heart; a change of mentality; a conversion.
I believe the idea behind repentance is more restrictive, perhaps I need to change something that is not exactly a sin; and repentance seems to be more about isolated moments of sin, whereas “change” seems to indicate a more holistic approach, conveying the idea of a journey or a process, future oriented.
As we reflected during our last series on identity, part of what we can do to change our personalities is done through establishing habits. The gospel we read on Ash Wednesday is the scriptural basis for the Church’s centuries-long tradition of the Lenten Observances. They are actually habits: prayer, fasting, alms giving.
As we said during Advent, and in our last post, the prayer mentioned in this gospel is the individual prayer in silence. If we use too many words we may not hear God speaking to us. We are going to need to be intentional about praying, as prayer in silence requires a lot of discipline.
Fasting, which is only to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (the latter technically already outside of the season of Lent) is also a habit, to show restraint and to symbolize that we need to empty ourselves to make room for Jesus Christ.
As a cultural updating to the idea of fasting, traditionally we give up something specific during Lent. People choose to give up desert, alcohol or chocolate, for instance. This is a good symbol, but we should be aware that giving up these things should translate into money we save to fulfill the third Lenten observance: alms giving.
I believe we should give up something at this level, but also something else at a deeper level. If we ask someone who loves us what we should really give up for Lent, I doubt they would say chocolate or sweets. They may point at some negative habit in our personality, perhaps how much we complain, how much we gossip, or how much anger we seem to carry. We should give up something that saves us money that then we can give to the poor, but we can also give up some entrenched behavior, and we may need someone to tell us what that could be (it often is so obvious to everyone except ourselves!)
The personal transformation of Lent can only be accomplished through God’s grace. A cross of ashes on our foreheads reminds us that we can’t accomplish much without God’s help, and those who He keeps sending to our lives.