Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day fall on the same day this year. In the Scripture readings for that day, the prophet Joel says, “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” (Joel 2:12-13a). The psalmist’s response includes the plea, “a clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me” (Psalm 51:10). This is certainly a heart connection that goes beyond the message of “Be my Valentine” on heart-shaped lacy cards.
Lent is a time for us to look deep into our hearts to discover how we have drifted away from the Lord, and to listen for the whispered messages that draw us back to the path from which we have strayed. It is a time for renewed heart-to-heart dialogue. As Brian Moore puts it in his book, The Gospel Day by Day through Lent, “The whole of Lent is a summons to a change of heart, and the depth of that change of heart will be commensurate with the deepening of our awareness of God and of ourselves in relationship to him.”
That deepening can occur through our response to the call to fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. There are many ways we can respond, but the measure of the fruitfulness of our self-denial and charity, Brian Moore says, is not in our success in cutting back on food, giving away our excess to the poor, or spending more time in prayer. In all these things, it is the “deepening our awareness of God’s presence to us and his action in our lives” that really matters.
Returning to the Lord includes a deepening awareness of how we choose to respond in the small decisions throughout our day. More often than not, the choice is not between good and bad but between two good things. We might need to choose between, for example, more time for pleasure or recreation and more time for prayer. Each helps us be healthy and balanced in our community and family relationships, but which is the Lord calling us to do?
There may also be times when we are called to meet the needs of others when it conflicts with something we see for our own good. When we choose the good for others, the Gospel from Mathew says, we need to do it with joyful shining faces, not looking gloomy or cast down. At those times, we need to recognize that the grace to respond is a gift we are able to give because of our deepening awareness of the love God has for us. Then we may discover with the prophet Joel that the Lord will relent, even if sometimes we are not so cheerful, and will “leave behind … a blessing” (Joel 2:4).
I pray that all of our Lenten journeys may be a time of blessing:
“May our fasting be hunger for justice; our alms a making of peace; our prayer, the chant of humble and grateful hearts” (from Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers).