The externals of Lent are quite obvious; for example, the deep purple frontals—almost the color of darkened blood—that our altar guild spread over tabernacle and altar last night. We sport the black ashen smear on our own frontals today and gleefully tell each other “what I’m giving up for Lent.” But for all its externals, Lent is essentially interior. It is the soul’s lethargy, not merely body fat, that we hope to shed. We want to run like a deer and fly like an eagle to the heights, to escape the downward drag of this world. Lent is a springtime of the heart.
“We implore you,” writes St. Paul in the Epistle, “be reconciled to God.” Lent turns us first of all to our Father “who sees what is hidden.” Only by letting Him love us can we learn to love ourselves properly, and learn to love our fellow pilgrims properly. In the Gospel Jesus tells us to hide our penances so that they can reach deep down into our souls. “When you fast, when you pray, when you give alms, do it in secret, and your Father, who sees in secret, will repay you.” It’s not easy for Catholics to keep our penances secret. The black mark on our foreheads gives us away. We explain sheepishly that desserts or drinks at social engagements are not for us until Easter. But for all the visible practices of Lent, they point to the Invisible God, leading us into His Sacred Heart.
Fasting, prayer, and almsgiving work together and in fact cannot fully function without the others. They are Lent’s three-legged stool. We begin with the most obvious, fasting: it cleans out body and soul so that God will find a home within us. Having fasted we are ready for prayer, in which we dwell in silence with God, allowing Him to fill us. And having received God in prayer, we are capable of almsgiving, sharing some of that love to those near us. Fasting empties us of self-love, prayer fills us with God’s love, and almsgiving extends that love.
Today is also St. Valentine’s Day. If you want to get love, give love. But what love do we have that we have not first received from God? Celebrate this Valentine’s Day by fasting, prayer, and almsgiving—preparing for love, receiving love, and giving love. Thus giving love, you will have love.