“Then.” Over and over this week, as we begin Lent, the Scriptures repeat this word.
We hear it from the prophet Joel. The people called an assembly and proclaimed a fast throughout all the land: “Then the Lord was stirred to concern for His land, and took pity on His people.”
We hear it from the prophet Isaiah. He tells the people that if they fast properly — not just in ritual observances but with their hearts, and through deeds of mercy and justice: “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn … Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer… Then light shall arise for you in the darkness … Then the Lord will guide you always … Then you shall delight in the Lord.”
We hear it from Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy. He tells the Israelites: If you obey the commandments of the Lord, then you will live and grow numerous; if you turn away your hearts and serve other gods, then you will perish.
We hear it from the apostle James, who tells us: If you resist the devil, then he will flee from you. If you draw near to God, then He will draw near to you.
So often, however, we take “then” the wrong way. We reason, in our hearts: “If I’m a sinner, then the Lord won’t call me.”
As if in response, the Church has us read the call of Levi (Matthew) the tax collector during the first week of Lent. “Jesus saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the customs post. He said to him: Follow me. And leaving everything behind, he got up and followed Him.”
The Church wants us to hear with crystal clarity: Being a sinner does not prevent the Lord from calling us! No, the real question is, when He calls, how will we respond? Levi responded by following immediately. Through his example, he speaks to us: “You’re probably like me — not worthy. Don’t worry. When He calls, just follow. He wants to make you worthy; He doesn’t require that you start out that way.”
In the Gospel for Ash Wednesday, Jesus tells us, in effect, that we will receive what we want. If we fast and pray and give alms because, in our hearts of hearts, we want to be seen, then we will receive what we want. Being seen will be our reward. If we fast and pray and give alms because, in our heart of hearts, we want to give glory to God, then God’s glory will be our reward.
On Thursday, Jesus tells us that His journey to the Resurrection passes through the Cross. The lesson, on the day after Ash Wednesday, is pretty clear — our journey to Easter passes through Lent. If we want the goal, then we have to make the journey. And the measure of our participation in the rigors of the journey will determine the measure of our participation in the joy of the goal.
“Then.” It’s amazing how one little word can contain a big lesson for us. Whatever we make of our Lent, our Easter will follow suit. If that’s the case, then what do we want our Lent to look like?