March 2023 - Metanoia as the ultimate goal and effect of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving during Lent

Let your hearts be broken and not your garments torn” (Joel 2:12-13). These words from the prophet introduce us to the core message of Lent — conversion. Lent commemorates the 40 days that Jesus spent fasting and praying in the desert during his temptation before beginning His public ministry. (The season of Lent is known as Quadragesima, the Latin word for fortieth.) Lent is a liturgical season for conversion that focuses on three spiritual pillars: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These three spiritual pillars are not meant to be routine or some sort of perfunctory action carried out by Catholic Christians in fulfillment of the precepts of the Church. Rather, each of these pillars prepares us for the joyful celebration of Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday.

Among others, the ultimate goal and effect of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, which the Church exhorts us to carry out during Lent, is metanoia. Metanoia is the Greek word for repent or repentance. Sacred Scriptures use the word metanoia to refer to a “change of heart brought about by the act of repentance.” Repentance transforms us, causes us to hate sin, to love God, to love one another, and to do good.

What will be the use of my prayer, fasting, and almsgiving if at the end of the Lenten season I am still my old self or even worse? Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving when not accompanied by a change of heart are incomplete. An authentic change of heart is the full meaning of the invitation of the Prophet Joel that we read at the beginning of every Lenten season: “Let your hearts be broken and not your garment torn” (Joel 2:12-13).

The reception of ashes on Ash Wednesday is the external insignia of our repentance: “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” The exhortation to a change of heart is also echoed by God through the Prophet Isaiah in these words: “The kind of fasting I want is this: Remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice and let the oppressed go free.… Then, my favour will shine on you like the morning sun, and your wounds will be quickly healed. When you pray, I will answer you. When you call to me, I will respond” (Is 58:6-11).

In his ministry, as the precursor of Jesus Christ, John the Baptist was equally particular on the change of heart being a sign of repentance, rather than mere externalities. John told the people, “If you are repentant, produce the appropriate fruits, and do not presume to tell yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father…’” (Mt 3:8-11).

At the end of the Lenten season, our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving should bear fruits that lead us to a change of heart concretely realized in our ability, for instance, to be patient, to forgive, to be polite, and to stay away from gossip and sabotage, etc. These effects may not be automatic; nevertheless, let us dispose ourselves towards their attainment by a habitual effort and desire for them. Our Lenten challenge, therefore, is a “change of heart” (metanoia).

Father Divine E. Fossoh is a parochial vicar of St. Brendan the Navigator Parish in Camden