Can it really be time for Lent already? Now? The calendar and the liturgy both say yes, but what about our hearts and minds? Are they ready now?
The Prophet Joel and the Apostle Paul can give us some help to know how to be in the now. Joel, writing sometime in the post-exilic period to the people of Jerusalem, offers some encouragement immediately after a brutal experience of what can only be described as the mother of all locust hordes. Having stripped the countryside absolutely bare, they attack the city; these bugs make as much noise and do as much damage as horses and chariots. "Before them," says Joel, "the land was like the Garden of Eden/Behind them, a desolate waste" (2:3). The prophet calls on everyone, from the baby at the breast to the graybeard at the fire, from the farmer to the priest, from the bride to the bridegroom, to stop whatever theyre doing in order to wail and lament over the tragedy. Everything is finished, and despair seems the only appropriate response.
And then, in the midst of all this, even as the sun and the moon are darkened by the locust army, the prophet swings around to speak again for the LORD, this time in a very different key:
Even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.
For gracious and merciful is he,
slow to anger, rich in kindness,
and relenting in punishment.
Perhaps he will again relent
and leave behind him a blessing (2: 12-14).
"Even now"— what a blessing to hear those words after all the others: Even now there is hope. Even now, I the LORD want you to return to me. I do not seek your annihilation, nor do I prefer some other people to you. Come back to me. Even now.
It seems the people heeded those words and took up that invitation, for the reading ends with these words:
Then the LORD was stirred to concern for his land
and took pity on his people (2:18).
Which brings us to Paul, who begs the Corinthians, that recalcitrant community who had given him so much pain, to be reconciled to God (2Cor 5:20). The verses directly before those of today offer us a handle to grasp them. Like the Prophet Isaiah in this past Sundays liturgy (Isa 43: 18-21), who spoke of God's making something new and asked, Do you not perceive it?, Paul reminds these people that whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come (2Cor 5:17). This new creation is the ground on which everything rests; any reconciliation with God will happen here or nowhere. And it will happen now or never, since now is a very acceptable time (6:2).
So were back where we started, at NOW. Are we ready now to begin Lent, that slow fast time when we, like those plague-scarred people of Jerusalem or those stubborn members of the Church at Corinth, are called even now to be reconciled to our God?
We go for ashes, we give up doughnuts, we help out at the soup kitchen on Tuesdays all good things. But lets not forget what Jesus tells us: wash your face, anoint your head, dont let your left hand know what the right hand is doing, pray to your Father in secret. Its as if hes saying: Don't let on that you know its Lent -- let it be something between you and the Father. Paradoxically, reconciliation lived like that will bless not only you now but also all those whom you meet in the days and weeks to come. Your reconciliation-in-progress, stretching over forty days and forty nights, begun now at God's invitation and carried throughout the whole time by his great love and mercy, will draw you down deeper and deeper into that now-ground of being a new creation in Christ, until at last you surface with him once again early on Easter morning. Ready now?
—Sr. Nuala Cotter, R.A.