Lent is here again. What are we to do with it, this season that comes along every year when we’re not really ready for it? Most of us will receive our ashes and sincerely intend to turn away from sin in our lives. Many of us will choose some specific Lenten practices for ourselves probably including some form of self-denial. The truth of the matter, however, is that for the majority of us Lent this year will not look any different from Lent last year or perhaps for many years. The problem is that it is too easy for us to allow Lent to be a time of external practices rather than internal renewal. In fact, it is the interior renewal that should govern the practices. If Lent looks the same for us, is it because we do not face squarely the specific areas in our lives that God invites us to change? I may have been giving up sweets for years. This can be a fine form of penance. But if I know that I am selfish and have become more selfish in the last year, then perhaps my Lenten practice this year needs to be rather a greater sharing with those in need. Perhaps I need to pledge some amount of money to a particular charity, or even better, to donate some time to an organization that needs volunteers. We can only change what needs to be changed by attacking it head on with the help of God’s grace. In the same way, giving up smoking or cutting back on alcohol may be a very appropriate penance again this year if those substances continue to exercise too much control in my life. But giving them up again this Lent when my main problem really is my relationship with my spouse or with someone at work might just divert me from the true penance I should do, namely, repairing that relationship by better communication with or more attention to that person. Lent is a season of being invited by God in a deeply personal way. The Lord beckons, “Come back to me with all your heart.” But we can only return to the Lord when we truly understand where we have wandered away from Him. In our part of the world, Lent falls in winter and these days are cold and dark, perfect for hiding ourselves indoors, perfect for hiding from God even as we go through the motions of observing this holy season. Let us ask this year in all honesty whether Lent should look different for us because we will no longer hide from the real areas of our lives that need change and conversion.
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