The ashes and the sign of the cross that we are given today at the beginning of the Lent: they are today’s sermon, they speak their own language.
I’ll add a few words.
For most of us it will be for the umpteenth time that we start this period of reflection and conversion. A recurring exercise. Do we then need repentance? Yes, most certainly, even if you have been Christian all your life, even if you’ve been 50 odd years in a monastery or 40 years a priest. Remember the word of Augustine: “Many who are inside are outside, and many who think they are outside are inside.”
Lent is meant to keep us alert, for routine and habit can imperceptibly draw us from the inside out. We are people made of dust and clay into which God blows His own life, but sometimes our earthliness takes the upper hand. The ashes and the sign of the cross tell us just that: “Remember that you are dust and will one day return to dust. Live from the breath of God.”
Through that breath we are transformed into God’s image, but by remaining glued to the earth, we can also turn into a counter-image. Image and counter-image. God is all love, love that is continuously poured into our hearts, but we can, in spite of all that love, just live for ourselves, by locking our hearts and keeping them closed to other people, so very different from God. Image and counter-image. Or, more accurately: it is never one or the other. For us, humans, life is always a mix.
During these coming forty days we ponder this and make an effort to see clearly again, to look behind our habits, to see who and how we are and how we are meant to be and how God wants us.
We do this in three very concrete ways: by praying, fasting and giving.
We pray more than usual, we make ourselves aware again of what prayer is at the deepest level: to open yourself to God, to abide in His presence listening heart-to-heart, not to recite prayers, but to pour out your heart and to entrust everything to Him.
We fast, we deny ourselves something. When you are over a certain age you need not and you cannot fast anymore in the strict sense of eating less. But that form of fasting was meant to make you aware of what you cling to, what you are attached to, attached in such a way that you cannot get out of yourself and therefore cannot open your heart to the other, before God, glued as you are to what is dust in you.
And we give. You give a little more usual, something of yourself, something that you have trouble giving because you want to keep it for yourself, even if you do not need it.
Lenten season: a time for rumination, a time of repentance, a time of recalibration. For, earthly beings as we are, we must over and over again start to live from the breath of God. Praying, fasting and giving: you receive no reward for it. The reward of detachment, of praying and giving, lies in doing it. Because when you do it, you open your heart to God, and there is no a greater reward than that.