But offer no bribes, these He does not accept! –Sirach 35:14
Our readings today concern giving up things. When I was younger this was my whole picture of Lent: a (seemingly endless!) time to give up the things and activities I most treasured. Cartoons, chocolate, playtime, all were sacrificed for God. It was a transactional exchange. The more I valued the thing I gave up, the more God valued my sacrifice.
And yet, as I have matured, so has my understanding of this great time of the year. Almsgiving, prayer, and fasting are the three calls of Lent. Today’s readings give us insight on how we are to meet these three calls.
Today’s first reading comes from the Old Testament wisdom literature, a series of book containing sayings and commentaries on how we are to live our lives in alignment with God’s plan. The author here equates giving to the poor and seeking justice with the finest offerings on the altar of sacrifice. Almsgiving is the sharing of our blessings with those who have less. While this is usually thought of as money or material goods, time and attention can be given as well. And we are urged to follow these suggestions with “a cheerful countenance,” and a “spirit of joy.” How different this is from the mournful repentance that is often presented as how we should comport ourselves for the next six weeks.
Prayer, at it simplest, is being open to God’s presence. In the responsorial psalm God says, “Hear, my people, and I will speak.” Notice that first we have to listen, to turn our ear to God, before we can hear His voice. Although God is constantly seeking to be in relationship with us, we need to turn to Him in prayer to complete the conversation. If we are turned towards our things, our affairs, our wants and desires, it is difficult if not impossible to hear God’s voice.
Finally in the gospel Peter says to the Lord, “We have given up everything and followed you.” This seems a little out of place without the preceding verses. A rich man has come to Jesus asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells the man that he already knows the way. But the man continues, ‘I have done all that from my youth and am still lost.’ Then Jesus invites him to stop letting his possessions possess him and, at that, the man goes away sad, “for he had many possessions.” This is what elicits Peter’s statement and Jesus’s response. In fasting, we are called to give up ur attachments, the most basic one being food. The call is not to starve ourselves to illness or leave those who depend on us alone to fend for themselves, but to pay close attention to when and what we desire. Can we restrain our desires and turn them to God?
These three calls of Lent can sometimes seem challenging. But as Jesus says, “For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.”
My prayer for today is that I am able to enter this Lenten season open to God’s word, sharing the abundance with which He has blessed me, and release my attachments to all that is not of Him.
Talib Huff is a lay member of the retreat team at Christ the King Passionist Retreat Center in Citrus Heights, California. He can be reached at [email protected].