Putting on weight not only means that we can't get into our favourite clothes but also that we don't feel as well as we would like and don't function as efficiently. So we try to get rid of it by eating sensibly. Many of us approach Lent in the same way. Since Easter of last year we have slipped back into bad habits that result in the carrying of the excess immoral weight that impedes the efficiency of our spiritual lives.
To lose body fat we can buy the right shell suit and trainers to go jogging through the streets and bore our friends with reports of our latest weight loss. But there's another, more discreet way to get fit. We simply eat healthily, walk instead of taking the car, and carry on with our lives as though we weren't on a fitness programme at all. The resulting increased fitness enables us to do the things we want to do efficiently and without discomfort. For fitness freaks their resulting fitness becomes an end in itself. The training isn't so that they can run for a bus without being out of breath but so they will look good.
We set ourselves goals in Lent: to do without chocolate, not go to the cinema or go to Mass every day or whatever. But we must be careful that these practices don't become ends in themselves. We don't go without chocolate for six weeks so that at the end of it we can pat ourselves on the back and say we've done it. We don't stay away from the cinema just to prove we can, knowing that we will be able to catch up during Easter week on the films we've missed. We don't go to daily Mass so that after Lent we can return to our once a week Sunday church attendance.
The readings chosen for today warn us of the futility of this kind of approach. The prophet Joel calls the people to repentance but tells them to tear their hearts and not their garments. The tearing of one's clothes in Joel's time as a sign of anguish and sorrow was meant for all the neighbours to see. It was the spiritual equivalent of going jogging through the town in a fluorescent shell suit and Nike trainers. Joel encourages the people to bear the signs of their repentance in their hearts, the equivalent of quietly going on a diet by simply eating less and walking instead of driving. This, says Joel, is real repentance. The other creates an emotional effect but does little to change our lives radically and permanently.
Joel also tells us why we should take up this sort of repentance:
Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful.
A close relationship with God is the purpose of our lives but we must have the will to devote all our efforts to it. And this is what repentance is for, to remind us of this ultimate goal. We drift away from God and take his goodness for granted. Joel tells us:
'Yet even now,' says the Lord, 'return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.'
The beginning of Lent is a good time to reassess our closeness to God. It's a good time to look at the past year and weep and mourn when we see all the opportunities we have wasted and our lack of commitment. Now is a good time to start making up for those lost opportunities.
But weeping and mourning are useless unless we decide to do something about the cause. Matthew's Gospel suggests we practise the unobtrusive form of spiritual exercises:
Beware of practising your piety before men in order to be seen by them,
Jesus says our penance and self-denial must be done in secret as only God need be aware of it because our relationship with him is all that matters. Because they focus our mind on what is essential, penance and self-denial bring us closer to God. Jesus tells us which indoor exercises will make us spiritually fit. We are not encouraged to become spiritual fitness freaks, going around wearing the latest spiritual shell suit and trainers. The exercises recommended by the Gospels include giving alms, praying more and fasting. And if we do these things in secret, from the depths of our being where all the important things happen, then God will reward us at the deep personal level where our relationship with him is to be found.