In the pre-Christian idea of repentance, which is still very much active, we “sacrifice” something and purchase what we want from god in a quid pro quo: I do a rain dance and the god sends rain; I toss my firstborn in the volcano and the harvest is abundant. If we proclaim a fast, weeping and mourning hard enough, then God will relent.
The gospel turns all of this inside out. Jesus reveals a God who takes the initiative: “While we were still sinners Christ died for us.”
This makes Christianity a kind of meta or anti-religion: God gives first, the totally undeserved free gift of grace, hoping to elicit a similarly free and gratuitous response.
First comes the shattering awareness that we are loved unconditionally, that the Lord is willing to forgive…then comes our repentance.
First we discover that “the Lord is all tenderness and compassion” then our hearts are torn, not just our garments.
So we give alms pray, and fast, not to buy God’s forgiveness or impress other people but as a grateful and gratuitous response to his free gift of mercy.
Jesus assures us that every hair on our head has been numbered and that the Father knows what we need before we ask.
This Lent, in a new way, he is giving us, day by day, moment by moment, exactly the grace we need to draw near to him. He rewards us in secret with the greatest reward, namely, to love without concern for one. As St. Bernard writes:
“Love is sufficient for itself; it gives pleasure to itself, and for its own sake. It is its own merit and own reward. Love needs no cause beyond itself, nor does it demand fruits; it is its own purpose. I love because I love, I love that I may love.”
The good news this Lent is that we don’t need to work ourselves up into a froth of willpower asceticism, arbitrary self-imposed penances we’ll either let slip as the weeks go by or woodenly insist on; these often serve only to reinforce our self-will and prop up our ‘religious ego’ anyway.
The good news is that ‘while we were still sinners Christ died for us’; his grace goes before us, we have only to immerse and steep ourselves in his presence, to ‘remain in his love’ … and the right way to pray fast and give alms will flow naturally from each moment…
…and the present moment is exactly where we receive this grace.
‘Now, now…turn back to me with all your heart’; ‘Now is the favorable time, this is the day of salvation.’
Giving up our desire to control God, to lock in the desired outcome by some fool-proof magic formula, we enjoy the freedom of the children of God by responding to the freshness of grace in each moment.
Abandonment to Divine Providence describes it this way: “without rules, nothing more orderly; without preparation, nothing better planned; without thought, nothing more profound; without skill, nothing more accomplished; without effort, nothing more effective; and without precaution, nothing better adjusted to whatever may happen.”