Lent is a special time of the year when we prepare ourselves for Easter, the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. It’s a time to reflect on our relationship with God and with others, and to make some changes that will help us grow in love. By marking our foreheads with ashes at the beginning of lent we are remembering we are nothing but dust and to dust we shall return. Not in a gloomy way but as a humble reminder that we are not God – we are God’s creation and rely on him for everything we are. In this way the ashes become a symbol of love, a symbol of joy, a symbol of new life.
Lent is a season of grace that calls us to examine our hearts and renew our relationship with God, with ourselves and with each other. How can we respond to this call? One way is to let go of something that keeps us from God, such as excessive screen time or unhealthy habits. Another way is to embrace something that draws us closer to God, such as meditating on Scripture or engaging more closely with our faith community. A third way is to share something that expresses God’s love to others, such as serving the poor or giving to a worthy cause. These are all meaningful ways to live out our faith, and they can transform us and the world around us. But don’t forget that Lent is not about what you do, but about what God does for you. God loves you so much that he sent his Son to die for you and to rise again. He wants to forgive you, heal you, and transform you. He wants to give you new life. That’s why Lent is not a time to feel bad about yourself or your past. It’s a time to look forward to the future with hope and joy. It’s a time to choose life.
As we enter the season of Lent, I ask you to consider the invitation of the poet Mary Oliver, who begins her poem “Wild Geese” with these words:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
The poem urges us to open ourselves to the beauty of creation. A beautiful creation which we are all a part of. While people focus on their own petty struggles, Mary Oliver points out, God’s creative force moves along effortlessly, free as a flock of geese passing overhead. What if, we accept her invitation this Lent. And instead of focusing on our sins and shortcomings, we listened to our own inner voice, our own heart, our own longing? What if we let go of the pressure, the criticism, the shame that we often impose on ourselves and realise we are enough, just as we are? The way God sees and accepts us. How do you like that? What does it bring up for you? What would it mean for you if………
“You do not have to be good.”
This perspective is new and fascinating. It questions my beliefs and opens my mind. I strive to be good, and I believe that you do too. But maybe that’s not the heart of Lent. What if Lent, the way of Jesus, and the gospel are more about wholeness and the fullness of life than ‘being good’? Although it’s difficult to get our heads around this reality, the truth is, the Gospel is not about being good. The Gospel is an invitation to join God’s mission of transforming the world. Jesus came to heal the broken, to liberate the oppressed, to restore the lost, and to renew creation. He taught his followers to love God and to love their neighbours as themselves, to seek justice and peace, to forgive and reconcile, and to share the good news with others. Lent is not for me to waste forty days of my life, being good giving up something – chocolate, coffee, Netflix, social media, whatever – only to resume it on Easter morning. I might have changed my habits for forty days but not my heart.
“You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.”
As I reflect on the past, I wonder how much better things could have been if we had embraced this sooner. How many chances and joys have we let slip while we were crawling on our knees in the scorching sand, begging for love and acceptance, or trying to prove our worth? Observing lent is to rediscover that I am a beloved child of God, made in His image and likeness. He loves me unconditionally and has a marvellous plan for my life. He knows me more than anyone else and cares for every aspect of my being. He is always with me, leading me, guarding me, and gracing me. He is my source of joy, my peace, and my hope. What if we stopped trying to be good for Lent and embraced Lent this way? I wonder what that would offer us and what it would demand from us. I have no clue where it would lead us, but we could spend the next forty days discovering.
“You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
This is my longing for this Lent. This is my longing for us. I want to discover “the gentle creature of my body.” It’s that tender, sensitive, vulnerable, and deeply human part of me that loves. In the Gospel for Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21) Jesus calls that “soft animal of your body” the heart. Maybe Lent is a journey to find, reveal, or heal our heart. Jesus teaches us that our hearts and our treasures are inseparable. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). Our hearts follow our treasures. When I recognize what I treasure, then I will find my heart, that “gentle creature” that loves. That’s when I have to face myself and, for better or worse, acknowledge the treasures I have chosen and the direction in which they have taken my life.
I leave you with a reminder of the first reading for Ash Wednesday (Joel 2:12-18). God invites us to come back to him with all our heart – to receive the God of mercy and love. God wants to give us a heart of flesh instead of a heart of stone, because he wants us to experience his love and his joy in a deeper way. That is true treasure. That’s what allows the tender, sensitive, vulnerable, and deeply human part of me to love.
Paul Jenkins O.Carm