Some time ago, each of us was brought to our parish church to be baptized. Most probably the parish priest met us near the church door and asked us two questions: "What is your name?" Through our godparents we answered with our names: "My name is Francis" or "Thomas," "Mary" or "Linda." Then the priest asked, "What do you ask of the church?" And we said, "We ask to be baptized." The priest then cautioned us about the weighty responsibilities we were undertaking to walk in Jesus' footsteps and then he led us in procession to the baptismal font. There the waters were poured upon us and the sign of Christ's passion and death were traced over our foreheads. We had taken the first step on our faith journey.
In his letter, Saint Paul picks up on this them and writes: "Do you not realize that when you were baptized, you were meant to suffer and die with Christ so that you can rise with him in the life to come?" Here we are this evening at the very beginning of yet another Lenten season. Every Lent calls us to a newly repentant spirit, a conversion of heart. In this evening's scripture readings, God is sending us three messages.
The first message comes from the prophet Joel in the Old Testament. Joel calls us all to a whole-hearted conversion. Drop what we are doing, whatever we are busy with, and return to God. There are no exceptions! It doesn't matter whether you are among the elderly or just a child. It doesn't matter whether you are newly married or newly ordained! Gather all the people, Joel says. Assemble the congregation! Blow the trumpet! Proclaim the fast. Let's get going.
The second message comes from Paul. Paul warns us not to receive this invitation, this grace of God, in vain. This call to Lenten penance, this call to conversion of heart, is itself a grace of God. For us to dismiss this call is to dismiss the grace of the God who sends it. A grace lost is a disgrace! Then Paul too hops on board Joel's bandwagon, proclaiming "Now is a very acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation!"
The third message comes from Matthew in the Gospel. He assumes we know that prayer, fasting and almsgiving are important. So he tells us how to conduct our fasting, our prayerfulness, our almsgiving. Fast, he says, pray and give alms quietly, privately, not boastfully, not for public show. When giving alms, don't even let our left hand know what our right hand is doing. Don't pray in a way that draws attention to ourselves. Don't put on a worn, haggard appearance that gains us sympathy from onlookers. The bottom line, Matthew suggests, is to let our behavior reflect a true repentance from sinfulness and spiritual negligence, a genuine conversion of heart.
Pain and challenge are always present in our lives, and they come in many forms. We can accept them, even welcome them, as Jesus did in the desert and at Gethsemane, or we can reject them, even try to dismiss them : though at grave personal risk.
Remember the three messages: Conversion and repentance are for each and all of us : no exceptions. Now is the acceptable time to begin. And whatever we decide to do, do with a sincere and generous spirit! That will make for a grace-filled Lent, and prepare us for an Easter celebration we can scarcely imagine.