'Rend your hearts, not your garments!'

Al Cariño
Reproduced with Permission

With the imposition of ashes on our foreheads today, Ash Wednesday, we begin the season of Lent. Lent is a season of approximately 40 days when we prepare ourselves for the proper observance of the Lord's Paschal Mystery, namely, His Passion, Death and Resurrection. It ends six weeks later -- at the start of the Evening Mass of Holy Thursday.

Christian life is always a life towards Easter. With the season of Lent, we are given the opportunity for a "forty-day retreat" to direct our lives anew toward the Paschal Mystery.

When the priest imposes ashes on our foreheads, he says: "Turn away from sin and receive the gospel." This prayer is about what we Christians should do. Because we have not been faithful to the demands of our baptism, we receive the ashes as a sign of our repentance and resolve to live according to the teachings of the gospel. Thus Lent is the season for more intense prayer, penance for our sins and the performance of good deeds.

In the gospel reading (Mt. 6: 1-6, 16-18), Jesus gives us pointers on how to conduct ourselves when we do "acts of righteousness" namely, giving to the needy, fasting and praying. For example, in giving to the needy, Jesus said: "When you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men.... But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret." Jesus says the same of fasting and prayer.

It should be noted that these acts must spring from the heart and go hand in hand. Giving to the needy without prayer and fasting lacks a spiritual dimension. Prayer without fasting and giving to the needy is an exercise in self-expression and wishful thinking. Fasting without charity and prayer becomes self-centered physical conditioning.

When we do these acts, Jesus is asking us to do them without fanfare. He places the emphasis on our motivation: "Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven." Rather, God "who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." The readings for Ash Wednesday set the theme for Lent - a call to interior conversion.

As we have said, at Lent, we are asked to do, among others, acts of penance. The minimum requirements for these are the Church's law on fasting and abstinence:

But these are the bare minimum. Because more is expected of us, let us come up with our own program of action for prayer, penance and charitable acts. A practical guide will be to do something that hurts, i.e., to do in less frequency the things that we enjoy doing, e.g., eat less, take less soft drinks, food, attending parties, watching TV, etc. and to do the things we do not like to do, like sharing a part of our allowance to someone in need, studying or working harder and longer, participating at Mass even outside of the days of obligation, etc.

From the very start, let us be clear on our motive, namely, not to be seen and admired by others but to come with purified souls to the celebration of the Paschal Mystery. Moreover, abstaining from little things will help us discipline ourselves in our efforts towards the purification of self. For if we can not be faithful in doing small things how do we expect to be faithful in big things?

When will we do this planning? Now! Recall what St. Paul said in the second reading: "Now is the acceptable time! Now is the day of salvation." Now is therefore the time to make our personal Lenten program to "Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God" (Joel 2:13).