By Fr Francis Gonsalves, SJ –
“Return to me with all your heart, fasting …” are the Biblical words (Joel 2:12) that summarize the essence of the forty-day period of ‘Lent’ preparing for the most important Christian feast: Easter. Interestingly, this year, Ash Wednesday coincided with Valentine’s Day (February 14), when young lovers professed their love for each other. Why don’t we begin this season with a heart full of flowing and fertile love for God and for all people, especially those who experience a lacuna of love in their lives?
The English word ‘Lent’ refers to the post-Winter period when the weather gets warmer. There’s a plant called ‘Lenten Rose’ (helleborus orientalis) whose sepals and foliage do not wither even during severe winters. One could consider Lent as a ‘springtime of the heart’ when one warms up and turns one’s heart towards one’s deepest self, the poor, and God. Thus, three core Lenten observances are fasting (involving the self), almsgiving (benefiting the needy), and prayer (relating with God).
The Latin word for Lent is Quadragesima, meaning, fortieth, referring to the forty days of Lent. The number 40 has profound Biblical significance. Moses fasted forty days to seek guidance from God (Exodus 34:28) and so did Jesus to prepare for the work assigned to him by God (Matthew 4:2). Jesus said: “Whenever you fast, don’t put on a gloomy look, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they’re fasting” (Matthew 6:16). Jesus tells us not to wear ‘castor oil’ faces but happy faces when we fast. Doesn’t Pope Francis tell us ever so often that Christians must have happy faces to proclaim good news?
In today’s McDonald culture, there can be mixed motives for fasting. Some might willingly give up snacking and smoking primarily because Lent is a God-given ‘time out’ to downsize bulging bellies and upgrade deteriorating heart profiles. Okay though such motives be, they’re far from the ideal. When tempted to break his fast, Jesus said, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Jesus relativizes food in order to seek sustenance from God through prayer.
Jesus tells his followers: “When you pray do not be like the hypocrites who pray in public so that they may be seen by others … but, go into your room, shut the door and pray to your Father [God] who sees in secret” (Matthew 6:6). For Jesus, prayer is a relationship with God that calls for deep faith in, and trustful surrender to, God’s love. Just as lovers deepen their friendship by spending time with each other, so do bhaktas become God-lovers by reading Scripture, by listening to God’s voice in the ebbs and flows of the human heart, and by responding to God’s Life in the ups and downs of history.
The Sanskrit word for fasting, upvaas, succinctly signifies the core of fasting. Up + vaas literally refers to a ‘dwelling near’ or an ‘abiding underneath’. True upvaas draws the devotee to dwell in God’s presence and abide by the dictates of God’s word. This upvaas is not merely a ‘giving up’ but must also be a ‘giving away’ in the form of authentic almsgiving. If a mother truly loves her child, will she not happily not only ‘give up’ many of her comforts, but also ‘give away’ to her child the best of what she has denied to herself?
“When you give alms,” advises Jesus, “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matthew 6:3). It was said of a conceited pianist that he played the piano in true Christian spirit: his left hand never knew what his right hand was doing! Jesus’ advice isn’t exactly for instrumentalists but for those who ‘play to the gallery’ in their almsgiving and donations. True almsgiving must be done secretly, neither expecting recognition nor recompense; for, not human beings, but only “God who sees in secret will reward you” (6:4). Ultimately, almsgiving must really be‘arms-giving’—lending a helping hand to those who need assistance.
During Lent, let’s not just reduce our bellies but rather enlarge our hearts. It’s not merely a matter of giving up, really, but of giving away. Let’s fast with a cheerful countenance, cast a loving glance Godwards and generously give to others not only what we have, but what we truly ‘are’; for, the only gifts we have are those we’ve given away. ‘Lent’ is not only the past participle of ‘lend’ but calls us to give away: fast!
Fr Francis Gonsalves is a Gujarat Jesuit, former Principal of Vidyajyoti College, Delhi, and currently Professor at Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth, Pune. He has authored many books and articles and is a columnist with The Asian Age and The Deccan Chronicle national dailies