On Ash Wednesday, when we received the ashes, we heard the Lord’s command: Repent and believe the Gospel. I have mentioned before how the words repent and convert are translations of the Greek word metanoia. I have previously suggested that this really means something like change one’s mind fundamentally. Well, this week I was partially corrected on this.
Metanoia means something more than this. It also has an aspect of regret, regret, for example, at a missed opportunity. Perhaps this regret might come from a sense of missed opportunity that is awakened by the experience of something beautiful. That shock of beauty that can suddenly reveal what might have been, and perhaps still can be.
We hear something of this in our readings today. There’s a sense of regret. There is the shock of wonder. There is a new perspective that brings hope. Finally, there are some practical instructions that don’t leave us in that regret, that take us from that repentance to the joy of the gospel.
Perhaps the most fundamental spiritual mistake is that of magic. That I control the mysteries of life, control being the opposite of participation in something that encompasses me, something that supplies the beginning and the end to life. A belief that the world revolves around me. This is what we see in our first reading.
Humanity is clearly defined, created in relation to God, as the image of God. Even as man and woman, humanity is created relationally. But humanity is tempted to see itself as solely relating to itself. And so magic tends towards selfishness and individualism. We hear the snake talking to humanity and telling it, you want it, you desire it, that’s all there is. Grab what you can. The temptation is to think about things in terms of me.
We see this tendency all around us. Perhaps I have told this story before, but when I was a seminarian I set up a social group for young teachers in Catholic schools. We would meet up in pubs and share ideas. One time we were having a conversation about Sunday Mass, and one of the teachers said she did not go to Mass. When I asked her, why?, she replied, I don’t feel like I need to. I asked, what if someone else needs you there? The fact that going to Mass might not be about her had clearly never occurred to her. And this is not to paint her in a bad light: since then I have realised that many do not think they might be crucial to the realisation of the Body of Christ, the kingdom of God.
Lent is a time when we try to correct this. When we can make serious efforts to decentre ourselves. Lent is the time of Exodus. Exodus literally means the road out. God is leading us out of ourselves, beyond ourselves. We hear Christ spelling this out for us in our gospel. The Devil tries to tempt Jesus to make it all about him. And Jesus refuses to define himself other that in relation to the Father. He refuses a definition of his person that is not communal.
This then is perhaps the way to see our Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. They are all ways of decentring ourselves. Of putting us back in our basic relationship. As part of the Body of Christ. As part of the Temple of the Holy Spirit. And so fundamentally orientated towards God and our neighbour. Reaching towards heaven, and therefore reaching out to our brothers and sisters.
By the way, when I speak of decentring, I don’t mean it in the way that some wellness experts mean. And it is not the way some other religions speak. When we talk about decentring, we are really talking about the Cross. Decentring is really about becoming who we are, precisely by forgetting ourselves. We become more who we are, the more we die to ourselves. The more we die to ourselves, the more we become transparent for the love of God, the love of God entering our hearts through our desire for holiness, and shining forth in love of neighbour.
This is when prayer, fasting and almsgiving become so tightly interwoven, that it is impossible to think about one without the other two. St Peter Chrysologus writes that fasting is the soul of prayer, and mercy is the life of fasting. Basically, prayer’s hunger for God should manifest itself in our lives, both in fasting and in the recognition of the other’s needs. They stand and fall together.
Let’s pray then this Lent that we pierced to the heart by the beauty of God’s love. May we catch sight of what we have lost, but what God offers us once more. And may we hold fast to Christ and the way he opens up, the way that takes us home, the Way that he himself is, and the way we are called to become for the sake of our brothers and sisters.