During the Matins for the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, we sing the following hymn which reminds us what keeping Lent and having a true lenten attitude means.
As the Thief I cry to You: Remember me!
As the Publican, with downcast eyes, I beat my breast and say: Be merciful!
As the Prodigal, deliver me from every evil, O King who pities all,
that I may sing the praises of Your boundless compassion.
Great Lent is given to us as a school to teach us the humility we need to serve God and our fellow Christians. We need to embody in our spiritual lives the humility, repentance and honesty of the Wise Thief, the repentant Publican and the Prodigal Son. The very purpose of any fasting, abstinence and self-denial in Lent is to bring us to the attitude of these three penitents. If we don’t see ourselves in them, and learn to be them in our repentance, our fasting is of little value. If we fast and then feel righteous, or fast and then criticize and condemn others, or fast but fail to be humbled or to repent, then we have fasted wrongly no matter how rigorously we kept every jot and tittle of the fasting rules. Lent is about changing our hearts not our stomachs.
Here is another hymn from the Matins of the Prodigal Son:
SAVIOR, I SET OFF ON A FOOLISH JOURNEY;
I WASTED ALL YOUR PRECIOUS GIFTS OF GRACE.
I LIVED IN LUXURY, AND THE DEVILS WERE MY FRIENDS;
I RETURN TO YOU EMPTY HANDED, LOVING FATHER.
RECEIVE ME IN REPENTANCE, AS YOU ACCEPTED THE PRODIGAL;
RESTORE TO ME MY BAPTISMAL ROBE OF PURITY, AND SAVE ME!
We do not want to go through Lent, even with zeal and rigor, but then approach God with “empty hands” as the Prodigal did. He had nothing to show for his affluent life. He could only approach his father with empty hands, revealing the wastefulness of his life choices.
For us, it is not the rigor of the fast which matters, but the spiritual fruit which it produces in our lives. If we focus only on the foods, we lose sight of the fruits of our labor. We fast in order to approach God bearing an offering of our spiritual labors.
“Then the King will say to those at his right hand,
‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;
for I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you clothed me,
I was sick and you visited me,
I was in prison and you came to me.'” (Matthew 25:34-36)