Today’s readings [from the Ash Wednesday Service of the Word]
Behold: now is the acceptable time!
Behold: now is the day of salvation!
We have come here today for all sorts of reasons. Lots of us may still have the remnants of old and bad teaching that you have to come to Church on Ash Wednesday and receive these “magic” ashes or something horrible will happen to you. When you don’t come to Church on a regular basis, you lose contact with God and the community, and yes, that is pretty horrible, but not in a superstitious kind of way – nothing that we celebrate here is magic. The real reason we come to Church on this the first day of Lent is for what we celebrate on the day after Lent: the resurrection of the Lord on Easter Sunday. Through the Cross and Resurrection, Jesus has won for us salvation, and we are the grateful beneficiaries of that great gift. All of our Lenten observance, then, is a preparation for the joy of Easter.
Lent calls us 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 and receive his gift of salvation. 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 to cut our ties with anything that keeps us from God.
Second, we can pray. We already must pray every day and attend Mass every Sunday, not to do so is seriously sinful. 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 week. 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, or join the St. Vincent dePaul Society. 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.
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!”