This year, Ash Wednesday coincides with Valentine’s Day. At first glance, this seems rather inconvenient: chocolate and a fast day don’t go very well together. However, a focus on love at the start of this season could help us to purify how we approach Lent this year.
One of our Sisters, who is a principal, has been emphasizing to the students at her school this year that the Lord first loved us. In the words of St. John, “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). So this Sister has been telling her students to greet Jesus when they enter the school chapel with the words, “I love You, too.” This helps the students to recognize that everything they do for the Lord is His initiative, not theirs, and is in response to His love.
We can fall so easily into the trap of thinking we have to earn God’s love. We seem to think, “If only I prayed enough, or served others enough, or just did everything right …” We may not often finish the sentence in our minds, but it seems to me that we are implying to ourselves, “… then I would be good enough for God.” But these are lies that the enemy uses to make us doubt God’s love so that we won’t turn to it.
These attitudes can slip easily into our plans for our Lenten observance. If we just are “successful” with our chosen prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, we think, then we will have a good Lent. But what if we stopped being the ones to decide just how our Lent will go? Certainly, we would end up less discouraged when it doesn’t go the way we had planned. And discouragement, we know, is never from the Lord.
What if we actually did take our perfectionism and our desire to control out of our Lenten observance? What a difference might it make in strengthening our relationship with the Lord if we let Him take the initiative? What if we spent this Lent focusing on the fact that He loved us first and allowing Him to love us?
It can be easy to say that we should let our Lent be a response to the Lord’s love, but a lot more difficult to carry it out without falling again into the trap of trying to take control. The temptation to take matters into our own hands has been with our human race since the Fall. And yet, all of human history shows us that this controlling attitude brings only sorrow, whereas the love of the Lord brings great joy.
So perhaps this Lent we can begin with the simple practice of adding that little word “too” to the end of our various ways of saying and showing, “I love You,” to the Lord. May we have the grace to recognize that before anything we have done — in fact, before we even were — He loved us first.
Sr. Mary Martha Becnel is a member of the Ann Arbor-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.