Ash Wednesday II

Today’s readings [Prayer Service]

Ash WednesdayA couple of years ago when I was in seminary, I was a fire chaplain for one of the local fire departments. On Wednesdays, we only had one class, and since it was Ash Wednesday and our teacher was a pastor of a parish, he was obviously busy, so we had the day free. I went with my friend Jeff, who as also a fire chaplain, to the station to see how things were going and to spend some time doing some ministry there. When we got there, though, there really wasn’t anyone around. The receptionist told us they had all gone out on a fire call, and it looked pretty big.

So Jeff and I got the address and headed out to the scene of the fire. This was the first major fire I ever worked on, and when I got there and saw this four unit condo on fire, I said something like, “Oh my gosh! That building’s on fire!” Jeff thought I was nuts, I think, but we pressed on and checked in with the fire chief. We asked where the families were, and he indicated an apartment building across the street. So we went there and introduced ourselves.

We talked to the families that were there for a while, and then had to get some other information, and during a lull, I asked the woman whose apartment we were trampling with our wet boots and stuff if she knew these families before. She said no, but she wouldn’t have thought of not opening her home to neighbors in trouble. I noticed she was wearing a sweatshirt with the letters WWJD on it – what would Jesus do? And I thought, she obviously knew the answer to that question, and was not afraid to live it.

That was Ash Wednesday two years ago, and it made a big impact on me. I realized it was so important for me to live those four letters – WWJD – during Lent, and really all year long. But doing that is a process. You have to develop new attitudes, new habits – new habits of the soul. This Lent is all about doing that for us.

We are called to repent, to break our ties with the sinfulness and the entanglements that are keeping us tethered to the world instead of free to live with our God. Our Church offers us three ways to do that during Lent. First, we can fast. We can give up snacks, or a favorite food, or eat one less meal perhaps one day a week, or we can give up a favorite television program or activity. Fasting helps us to be aware of the ways God works to sustain us when we’re hungry. The lack of television provides us with a silence that can be filled by God’s presence. The whole idea of fasting is that we need to come to realize that there is nothing that we hunger for that God can’t provide, and provide better than we could ever find in any other source.

Second, we can pray. Sure, we’re called to pray all the time, but maybe Lent can be the opportunity to intensify our prayer life, to make it better, to make it more, to draw more life from it. Maybe we are not people who read Scripture every day, and we can work through one of the books of the Bible during Lent. Maybe we can learn a new prayer or take on a new devotion. Maybe we can spend time before the Lord in the Tabernacle or in adoration, especially during our 40 hours devotion we’ll have next month. Maybe we can just carve out some quiet time at the end of the day to give thanks for our blessings, and to ask pardon for our failings. Intensifying our prayer life this Lent can help us to be aware of God’s presence at every moment of our day and in every place we are.

Third, we can give alms or do works of charity. We can save money for Operation Rice Bowl, or perhaps help to provide a meal at Hesed House. Maybe we can devote some time to mentoring a child who needs help with their studies, or volunteer to help in our school or religious education program. Works of charity might be a family project, perhaps volunteering at a soup kitchen together, or shopping together for items to donate to Loaves and Fishes. When we do works of charity, we can learn to see others as God does, and love them the way God loves them and us.

And none of this, as the Gospel reminds us today, is to be done begrudgingly or half-heartedly. None of it is to be done with the express purpose of letting the world see how great we are. It is always to be done with great humility, but also with great joy. Our acts of fasting, prayer, and charity should be a celebration of who God is in our lives, and a beautiful effort to strengthen our relationship with him.

This Lent, through a book you can purchase here or at a bookstore, and using our parish website, we are being challenged to develop habits of the soul. I’ve read that it takes 21 days to build a new good habit. With the 40 days that Lent provides, maybe we can all focus on one thing we could do to make our lives more joyful, or more prayerful, or more charitable. Whether we give something up to escape the entanglements of the world, or whether we perform acts of charity to love more freely, or whether we pray in new ways to become more thoughtful, we can build the habit that will last a lifetime, a habit that will lead us to the joy of eternal life.

It is my prayer that this Lent can be a forty day retreat that will bring us all closer to God. May we all hear the voice of the prophet Joel from today’s first reading: “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart!”

Ash Wednesday I

Today’s readings [Mass for the School Children]

What are you going to do for Lent this year? Are you going to give something up? Are you going to pray more? Are you going to do something nice for someone or do something for the poor and needy? Those are the three ways that we observe Lent in our Church: we fast, we pray, and we give alms, we give to the poor.

ashwednesdayWhy do we do these things for Lent? We do them because Jesus gave his life for us. We do them because we have sinned and have broken the relationship between God and us. We do them because God loves us, and we want to love God and others more. Lent is a time when we can change our hearts and change our lives and become more like the people God made us to be in the first place.

So one of the things we are asked to do during Lent is to pray more. Maybe you can take some time to read a little bit of one of the books of the Bible every night. Or maybe you can learn a new prayer that you didn’t know. Maybe every night you can take a few minutes to thank God for the blessings he has given you that day, and to say you’re sorry for the ways that you haven’t followed him that well. When we pray more, we can grow closer to Jesus who loves us so much he gave up his life for us.

Another thing we are called to do during Lent is to fast, or give something up. Maybe we’ll give up candy, or cookies, or a television program that we like. We give things up so that we can know that we can depend on God to feed us with the things we really need.

And we are also called to do acts of charity, or almsgiving, during Lent. That might mean that we save up some money to give to Loaves and Fishes. Or maybe we can find out something that they need at Hesed house and collect that and bring it to them. Or maybe we can help a younger brother or sister with their homework. Maybe we can try to be nice to people and try to love our families more. When we do acts of charity, we can practice loving people the same way God loves us.

A long time ago now, I used to give up chocolate every year for Lent. But right before Lent one year, some of the kids in my youth group said, “Mr. Mulcahy, we hope you’re not giving up chocolate for Lent this year.” When I asked them why, they said, “because every year when you do that, you get crabby.” And see, that’s not why we give things up, or why we do anything for Lent. We do those things because God is so good to us and God loves us and we want to love God and others more like he loves us. So whatever we do for Lent, we shouldn’t be crabby about it, we should do it with joy because it is bringing us closer to God.

Friday of the Sixth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings [Mass for the school children]

A long, long time ago when God had finished creating the heavens, the earth, and everything in them, including men and women, God looked at it and saw how very good it all was. God especially loved the people he created because those people were images of himself. God made people to love him and be with him forever, but he also made people to be free, because God wanted people to love him because they wanted to love him and not because they had to.

It didn’t take very long before men and women messed up and fell from grace. Instead of being the beautiful creations God made them to be, they sinned and chose not to love him the way they should. But every time they did that, God tried to bring them back. When the great flood came, God put Noah and some others on the Ark to save his creation. When the people were put into slavery in Egypt, God led them out of Egypt, through the desert, to a much better place. And every time he did that, things would be okay for a while, but then men and women would turn away from him again.

But God never stopped trying to save us. He didn’t want us to turn away from him and die; he wanted us to turn toward him and live in the kingdom he had made for us. So he decided that he would send his own Son to our world to save us from our sins. His Son Jesus loved us all so much that he died on the Cross in the place of all our sins. But because God didn’t want death to separate us from him, he raised Jesus up from the dead on the third day. Because Jesus rose from the dead, we know that our own death isn’t the end of our life. We too can live forever with God in heaven.

So today we celebrate that Cross, because it is by the Cross that we have been saved for our sins, saved forever, so that we can love God and live with him forever. Next week we will celebrate Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. During Lent, we remember the sacrifice Jesus made on the Cross for all of us. During Lent, we also make sacrifices in our own lives so that we can remember that God is all that we need. Since we are getting ready to celebrate Lent, I thought it would be a good idea to talk about our Church’s traditions for Lent.

Ashes: We use ashes on ash Wednesday. In Biblical days, people used to wear sackcloth and sit in ashes as a sign of turning away from their sins. So ashes remind us that we are all sinners, and have to turn back to God. The ashes are made from the palms that were given out last year on Palm Sunday.

Palms: Just before Jesus died on the Cross, he came back to Jerusalem and all the people were excited about it. They waved palms and put them on the road as he came so that they could hail him as their king. We give out palms on Palm Sunday so that we can remember that Jesus is our king.

Purple vestments: The priest wears purple and the Church is decorated with purple during Lent. Purple is a color that reminds us of being sorry for our sins. The second graders here know that when they go to the priest for confession, the priest wears a purple stole. So we wear purple to remind us that during Lent, we are sorry for our sins.

40 Days: Lent is forty days long. Forty was an important number in the Bible. When the great flood came, Noah and the others were in the Ark for forty days and nights. When God led the Israelites out of Egypt, they traveled through the desert for forty years. When Jesus was tempted in the desert, he fasted there for forty days. We take these forty days to look at our lives and make changes, so that we can grow closer to God.

Fish: You might know that older Catholics give up meat on all the Fridays of Lent. Jesus died on the Cross on a Friday, so Friday is always a special day of fasting and prayer for us. During Lent, we give up meat on Fridays and eat simpler meals so that we can remember that it is always God who fills us up and that God has a rich banquet prepared for us.

Paschal Candle: This is the Paschal Candle, which we also call the Easter Candle. This candle helps us remember that Jesus is our light. Even if our lives are made darker by sin and unhappiness, Jesus can break through all that with the powerful light of his presence.

No “Gloria” or “Alleluia”: The “Gloria” and the “Alleluia” are songs of joy. During Lent, we give up those songs of joy because we are remembering our sins and the price that Jesus paid for them by dying on the Cross. During Lent, we don’t sing the Gloria at all, and in place of the Alleluia we sing a special antiphon.

There are many things that we do during Lent. But all of them remind us that we need to turn back to God who loves us so much that he sent his Son Jesus to take away our sins.