We begin the "joyful season" of Lent today. That description usually sounds a little hollow in our ears, I suspect. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving usually don't make the top ten list of ways of expressing joy. Perhaps that in itself is evidence that our lives are a bit our of kilter.
When Jesus is asked by a scribe to name the greatest commandment (a serious question for the first century Jew who was encouraged to keep all the commandments with equal energy), Jesus replies,
You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments." Mt 22:37-40.
Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are practices meant to help us fulfill these two commandments. Our natural tendency is to focus on ourselves - to love and care for ourselves first, then our neighbor, and to place God last. Of course, the neighbor we tend to care for is the one who is like us, or who has demonstrated some love for us first. And while God's expectations of us are clear in the Scriptures, He doesn't seem to force them - or Himself - upon us from day to day.
Even the "give ups" we embrace at the beginning of Lent can really be self-centered. Some people give up chocolate or dessert (perhaps in the hope of losing a few stubborn Christmas-New Years pounds). Lent can become a time of "self-improvement" based on superficialities (less caffeine in my system, less time wasted in front of the TV). But Lent is a time of turning away from myself and back to God and neighbor, so why would I ask God for the grace to do that during Lent, only to return to my "normal" ways Easter Sunday?
Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are intimately linked. In fasting, whether from food, a vice, or time-consuming activity, God invites me to deny myself in order to break the illusion that I my life is about myself. In fasting, God teaches me that my needs - which often are really wants - do not have to be filled in order for me to be content. Fasting also prepares a space in my life in which more prayer can take place. So in choosing your fast this year, ask yourself, "what activity has taken hold over my life in such a way that it is interfering in my relationship with God and/or my neighbor?"
Prayer is our conscious, intentional turning towards our Creator. It acknowledges our Source and our End, and places Jesus and His Father and their mutual Love, the Holy Spirit, nearer the center of our life. Perhaps our best prayer might be to acknowledge our complete dependence upon God and to beg that knowing, loving and trusting Him might become our greatest desire. Perhaps in prayer, God may reveal to us the idols that we have worshipped instead of him; idols like wealth, security, power, our favorite sports team, beauty, etc.
The prophet Isaiah links fasting with our relationship to our neighbor:
Is this the manner of fasting I wish, of keeping a day of penance: That a man bow his head like a reed, and lie in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?
Again, we see that almsgiving also focuses our attention away from ourselves. The "fast" Isaiah describes requires us to see the needs of the oppressed, the imprisoned, the hungry, naked, and homeless. It demands that we expand our understanding of "our own" beyond the narrow confines of family and friends.
This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own. Isaiah 58:5-7
How is Lent a "joyful season"? Perhaps that answer lies in actually praying, fasting, and giving alms. Maybe being less selfish and self-centered, maybe being more focused on a lived relationship with the God who loved us so much that He came to share our life, will be its own reward.