A homily by Father François Rossier, S.M.
Lent is a season of conversion. We like it or we don’t, depending on what we are asked to convert from. Depending of what we are invited to lashuv from.
Lashuv? This Hebrew verb means “to convert” in Scripture. And it is important to understand what the verb “to convert” really meant in the Biblical viewpoint. For if the Biblical verb lashuv is usually translated into English by “to convert,” the English meaning of “to convert” is not exactly equivalent to the Hebrew meaning of lashuv, and not even to the meaning of the Latin verb convertere, a verb from which the English verb “to convert” derives.
Lashuv, and later on, convertere, meant in fact “to make a U-turn.” A little bit of this idea remained in the English formula used in the previous translation of the Roman Missal when we received the ashes: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”
“Turn away from sin.” Today we say, “Repent,” which expresses the reason why we decide to turn away from sin. To repent alludes to the motivation; to turn away refers to the resulting action. But it is not simply about avoiding sin or about bypassing sin. The movement has to be completed. It is about turning away from sin and making a U-turn in front of it. It is about going in the opposite direction.
In Biblical mentality, “to convert” really means to make a U-turn in front of sin. And the Gospel, in this beginning of the Lenten season, helps us understand what this sin is — through a series of examples.
“When you give alms, for example, do not blow a horn before you in synagogues and streets like hypocrites looking for applause. You can be sure of this much, they are already repaid […] Keep your deeds of mercy secret, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” “When you are praying, do not behave like the hypocrites who love to stand and pray in synagogues or on street corners in order to be noticed […] they are already repaid. Whenever you pray […] pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees what no man sees, will repay you.”
“When you fast, you are not to look glum as the hypocrites do. They change the appearance of their faces so that others may see they are fasting […] they are already repaid. When you fast [do it in a way that] no one can see you are fasting but your Father who is hidden; and your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.
Sin is, therefore and above all, self interest. The more we turn away from God and turn to our own self, the more sinful we are. Sin is to be away from God. To sin is to confuse our own self with God. At first sight, it looks beneficial, but eventually it is a lure, it is just a dead end.
How can a human creature offer us eternal happiness? We are, thus, invited to make a U-turn in front of ourselves, in front of our ego, and yet we are reluctant to do so. Even though self interest can only lead to slavery (slave to lust, to goods, to technology, to power and so on) and, as I said, to death at the end. We don’t have that impression. On the contrary, we think it is in our best interest.
So sin goes undercover, under the cover of even the best religious intentions. We seem to turn away from sin as we continue to seek our self interest. This way of doing is, in fact, very much ingrained in us. I take another example: When you receive the ashes, do not keep them on your forehead for the rest of the day like the hypocrites do so that everyone can see that they are good Christians or true penitents (ergo) […] they are already repaid.
Of course, we always find some good excuse for doing so. It may manifest one’s desire to do penance. Giving alms publicly may prompt other to imitate us and to do the same. But eventually, it is about ourselves. And this is sin again.
We are to make a U-turn, i.e., to go back to the Father who will repay us. We are to repent and believe in the Gospel, i.e., in the Good News (this is what “gospel” means). For it is good news: the U-turn will allow us to gain freedom and life. No one else than Jesus, than God, not even ourselves, can give this to us.
That’s why God begs us: Make a U-turn and come back to me.