Last Wednesday we began the season of Lent, which is meant to be a time of spiritual new beginnings. Do you ever wonder why we have to do this every year? Why not once every five or ten years? I think the Lord knows that we have short memories and we need to remind ourselves what our faith is and is not about. So each year we celebrate the big feasts of Christmas and Easter and we also try and prepare for them because they are so special to us. Most religions have a time of fasting and penance, such as Ramadan for Islam. So during Lent we remember all that God has done for us and that all we have comes from God as pure gift.
We live in a time where people are quick to boast of their own greatness and self-importance. It is easy for us to forget that we are nothing without God. In fact when we recognise that everything we have comes from God it actually takes a lot of the pressure off us to be successful and to be able to do everything, because we remember that we are not the ones at the center, but God. And so during Lent we take stock of how we are and as a way of showing thanks and beginning again, we give to God by doing some kind of penance or fasting. This is one way of showing our gratitude. It is also a way of acknowledging that God is the Creator and that we are just the creature.
As He was about to begin his public ministry Jesus was driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit to fast and be 'tested' spiritually. Being 'tested' in this sense doesn't mean being checked to see if He was up to standard, rather being strengthened for the mission that the Father had sent him to do. Jesus was being made ready for the greatest mission ever, to teach us about God and to lay down his life for the human race. We try to imitate Jesus' life and so we fast too in whatever way we feel we are able. Note that it was the Spirit that drove Jesus into the wilderness. It is also the Spirit that inspires us to begin again.
Probably the most important thing that Jesus taught us about fasting and penance, is that it must come from the heart. The Lord says, ‘don’t insult me with big fasts and penances, if you are not going to improve your lifestyle. Justice and the love of other people are more important than sacrifices.’ In other words, it must come from the heart. Any kind of sacrifice is absolutely useless, unless it comes from the heart. You know how annoying it is if someone who has hurt you tells you they're sorry when you know they don’t mean it. You would rather they said nothing. In the same way God asks us to be sincere in whatever we do and that it not just be outward actions, but something that comes from the heart. It is not really important what we do, but that we do it with love and that we do it for God, asking him to strengthen and renew us in our faith. The smallest act of denial or giving done with love, is worth more than the greatest sacrifices done without love.