For anyone who has been struggling through Lent to give something up, or to take up some new devotion of prayer or charitable work, it might appear that St Paul is calling those endeavours into question. Paul’s letter to his beloved Philippians begins with his joyful prayers for them and ends by calling on them to “rejoice in the Lord always” (4:4). Chapter 3 however strikes a sombre note of warning against “evil workers”. Paul is probably targeting here opponents sometimes called “Judaizers” – formerly Jewish Christians who believed that Jewish customs and practices enshrined in the Law of Moses needed to be observed by converts. In particular they believed that gentile converts to Christianity should first of all be circumcised. This dispute came to a head at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), which after much debate agreed that circumcision did not need to be mandatory. Paul, apostle to the gentiles, reminds the Philippians of his own faith journey. He was a circumcised Jew himself, of the tribe of Benjamin and as a Pharisee, an expert in the Law. But all this Paul regards as “so much rubbish” compared to “knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”. External observances alone can take us only so far. Every Lenten offering we make in faith through Jesus. Just as acts of kindness to those dear to us make us happy because we love them and want the best for them, so our efforts in Lent spring from that personal relationship with Christ which should be the inspiration of everything we do.
“Let Jesus enter your life, welcome him as a friend, with trust: he is life. If up till now you have kept him at a distance, step forward. He will receive you with open arms. If you have been indifferent, take a risk: you won’t be disappointed.” (Pope Francis)