"Return to me with all your heart!” This is the cry of a lover who has been separated from the loved one either by distance, or time or perhaps by betrayal. It is a heart-to-heart cry. In the writings of Joel, it is God begging Israel to return to God’s gracious and merciful love. What a startling thought—that God should plead for our return, rather than that we would ask God to return to us. It is not that God is needy. Rather, God is more like a loving parent, pleading with a recalcitrant child: Come back in the house where it’s warm; don’t pout in your room; rejoin the family.
We have all in some way turned away from our initial commitments. We are not as open with our spouses; we are not as patient with our children. We cut corners at work; we refuse to forgive; we insist that everything be done our way. We are not sensitive to the simple promptings of God in our lives. The season of Lent is a time to step back for a moment and examine our hearts, so that we can rekindle our fervor and return.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of the three traditional Lenten practices: giving alms, prayer and fasting. But he warns us not to perform such acts for praise. Joel says: “Rend your hearts, not your garments!” In other words, our penance should not be superficial or perfunctory. It must cut to the bone; it must be tailored to our own real needs. Perhaps we should be more generous with our material possessions. Or maybe it is our time or attention that we have withheld from others. Perhaps we have neglected prayer, thinking that we have little time for it when in fact we might snatch moments as we travel to and from work or while doing the dishes. Perhaps we should fast—not diet—from our favorite indulgence: food, drink, television or the like.
Lenten practices themselves are rather pointless if they do not turn our hearts around, back to God and back to the people in our lives. The need is different for each one, because human failing is so individual. Whether these failings are serious or not, they tend to eat away at our relationships with God and with others. Paul urges us to be reconciled with God, to be open to the grace that has already been gained for us. Lent is the time to do this. It is the “very acceptable time.” It is, in fact, “the day of salvation.”