Lent encourages Christians to improve relationship with God
Lent has begun! The first gospel reading for the season, on Ash Wednesday, was from Matthew chapter 6. The gospel highlighted the three pillars of the Lenten season: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. This theme is mirrored by last Saturday’s gospel when the tax collector, Levi, responds to Jesus’ call: “He left everything, and rose, and followed Him” (Lk 5:27-32).
Levi’s first response, when called upon, is to leave everything behind. During the Lenten season, Jesus also calls us to leave everything behind by fasting. We fast become detached from the world and from our sin. Our attachment to the world and sin above heaven and God keeps us from giving our whole lives to Him. The more we become detached, the more we can give to God. This is the first step in growth in relationship with God.
When we begin to detach ourselves from the world and sin, we begin to see the need for prayer. Prayer, the second pillar of Lent, is communication with God, which is necessary for a relationship with Him. Communication involves both speaking and listening. Levi’s response to rise calls for a different type of prayer: meditation. Meditation is not an emptying of the mind from all thoughts but is a rising of the heart and mind to God. “Meditation is, above all, a quest. The mind seeks to understand the why and how of the Christian life, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking” (Catechism of the Catholic Church line 2705).
It is the prayer of listening to God instead of speaking. When we come into the habit of meditation, many distractions may come up, but we must not fret. As we train our hearts and minds to focus on God by detaching them from the world and its distractions, our hearts and minds become free to rise to Him in prayer.
Hearing God in prayer alone is not enough to live a Christian life. “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (James 1:22). After hearing Jesus, Levi responds by doing what Jesus asks of him; Levi follows Jesus. It is noticeable that when we do what the Word says, we follow Him. We can know how to follow him by meditating on the Bible and spiritual classics, but we must do what He tells us. Ultimately, following Him leads us to the greatest commandments: to love God above all else and love our neighbors as ourselves.
Lent reminds us especially that to love our neighbors as ourselves, we must give alms. To give alms, as St. Thomas Aquinas says, manifests itself in both the corporal works of mercy (feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, harbor the harborless, visit the sick, ransom the captive, and bury the dead) and the spiritual works of mercy (“instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, admonish sinners, bear wrongs patiently, forgive offences willingly, comfort the afflicted, and pray for the living and the dead”) (ST II-II, Q. 32, Art. 2, co.). A true Christian must give alms and show mercy. If not, he does not love neighbors as himself.
We were made for the perfection of love. Our inadequacies and sins keep us from that perfection. Perfection comes from detachment from the world, meditation and love of God and of neighbor. Without these pillars, how do we expect to attain eternal life with Him when our time comes? If we do not fast, will we be willing to let go of the things of this world and sin? If we do not pray, will we be able to be in union with Him as if we have known Him all along? If we do not follow Him now, will we be able to follow Him to heaven? The answer to these questions is: no. With fasting, prayer and almsgiving, we will be able to leave everything behind, rise and follow Him.