Lent has now begun. It is a time of repentance and conversion and second chances. In the book of Jonah, the prophet is sent to preach to the king of Nineveh and warn him that his people’s wickedness will result in the destruction of their city by God. The king and the residents of Assyria’s capital city hear God’s message and put on sackcloth, fast from food and drink, sit in ashes, and turn away from sin. “When God saw by their actions how they turned away from their evil way, he repented of the evil he had threatened to do to them…” And it wasn’t just the Ninevites who got a second chance in that story: Jonah, reluctant to preach God’s message to Israel’s enemy, ended up in the belly of a great fish, but was given another opportunity to do God’s will.
Like Jonah, we are called to act according to the will of God. Many of us made resolutions on January 1st to begin the new secular year. Those resolutions probably included things like exercising more, losing weight, quitting smoking, and generally participating in activities that are healthier for our bodies. All of those are worthy endeavors, and are in line with the teaching that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.
Lent is a time in the liturgical year, the Church year, when we make similar resolutions – but for spiritual reasons. During this penitential season, the faithful generally commit to a form of fasting or give up certain types of luxury. Many of us stop going out to eat or eliminate unproductive activities, like playing Angry Birds on our iPhones and iPads. This desert environment in our lives is reflected in the environment in our churches: Roman Catholic and even some Protestant churches remove flowers from the altar, while statues are often veiled in purple fabrics in pious observance of Lent.
But a legitimate alternative to “giving up” something is to do something – actions that conform to one of the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy. You will see the blue “Divine Opportunities” posters in every building in our church, letting us know that in giving of our time, the difference we make in the lives of our brothers and sisters in need is divine. As you consider the actions you will be taking for the next forty days, make it your personal Lenten mission to discern your gifts and then find a way to grow spiritually by investing your time and talent.