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!”