Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Ash Wednesday!

It's Ash Wednesday.   A day in which more than a billion people have the opportunity to receive Ashes on their forehead in a reminder that yes, they too are going to die one day.   A reminder of the verse from Genesis 3:19: "By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread, Until you return to the ground, from which you were taken; For you are dust, and to dust you shall return." (NAB)   Lent officially begins today.  A season of penitence in which we Catholics are reminded of the three pillars: prayer, fasting, and alms-giving.  It's not surprising that the readings for today's Mass are somber reminders of the need of repentance, of metanoia (an internal change of direction) that comes from an encounter with Christ, our Lord.

In the first reading of Joel we see him speaking to a people who have been devastated.   In this post-exilic period, the people were beginning to look beyond just a hope of a restoration of the people to their ancestral home, but towards an eschatological reality.    An extreme famine had destroyed much of their food and a swarm of locusts have overrun their land.  The people saw this as a punishment from God to be followed by a "great and powerful people" who would once again take over their land.   Joel reminds them that the problem is that people are just being outwardly men and women of God, but inwardly they have not changed.  God reminds us again and again that conversion is primarily a matter of the heart.  As the great Saint Paul has said time and again, "without love you are just a clashing cymbal or sounding gong." 1 Corinthians 19:1

A clashing cymbal.   Years ago I was in the high school band as a percussionist.   I'll never forget the times in practice when I knocked over a cymbal or dropped one.   The eyes of the band turned at glared at me.  The sound was more than just annoying, it was grating on the nerves.   Especially after it had happened more than once!    That's kind of where we find ourselves as Christians for much of the time these days.   People don't want to hear the message anymore because it's just being shouted and ringing out like a cymbal dropped in a quiet room.  It's not that we should stop sharing the message!  It's that we must needs be visibly and spiritually changed by it first before anyone else will believe that there is anything to it.

That's what Lent is all about and the readings are loud and clear in their call to us to be authentic in our worship.   Whether you find comfort in praying a rosary, silent meditation, or a walk through nature... the purpose of that is not to let others see you doing it, but rather for you to grow in faith, and just as importantly in love.  God is not interested in empty shows of piety.   He wants to see love from us.  Love for our neighbors, our enemies... even ourselves.   What happens when an entire people live out the life of authentic faith? Joel tell us "Then the LORD was stirred to concern for his land and took pity on his people."   What a beautiful thing indeed!

St. Paul reminds us that today is the time!  Not tomorrow, not next week, but that NOW is an acceptable time.  The day of the Lord is not just an eschatological realty, but it's present here and now.   All of us are going to die.   Who is next?  Maybe a morbid thought.... but in reality we don't know.   Any of us could be the one to go.  Are you ready?    Is your life the kind of life that you want it to be?   Are you the kind of person that God has created you to live as?  If not?  How do we have that metanoia experience?   Prayer.  Fasting. Almsgiving.  It's not enough to do just one or the other.   We must spend time with God.  It's a relationship.   At least 15 minutes a day.  Don't aim for the minimum.  Aim for a relationship!  You wouldn't just spend 15 minutes with your spouse or your boyfriend/girlfriend, would you?   No, a real relationship requires time and presence.  

Fasting..  that's not very popular in our culture unless you are trying to lose weight.   It's a reminder to you though that what is truly important is not food, not coffee, not soda, not the gym, not even the social media that makes you feel so warm and fuzzy... but rather God.   Fasting is all about saying to yourself you know what?  I've let this become too much of my life and I need more of God in there.  Therefore I'm going to do less of this, and more of God.   Almsgiving is the natural response to that.   When you fast from coffee?  Don't replace it with dandelion tea.  It's against the very nature of fasting to get rid of one thing and replace it with another that is just as expensive or enjoyable.   No, when you give it up take that money and give it to someone who has less.   The widow, the orphan, the refugee.  

Then Jesus reminds us that we aren't to simply do it to be seen.  No this is a matter of internal change.  It's a matter of living a life that draws us closer to that true contemplative experience, that union with God that our hearts crave and call for.   It's replacing all the things that stand in the way until prayer is not something we do just a few minutes a day.. but something we do with every waking breath, with every heart beat.   I am not there, but I so want to be.. and I know there are clear things that are in my way.  Do I have the courage to remove them?  Here is my prayer for Lent.   I wrote this as part of an assignment for the Diaconate and I want to share it here for all of you.   Feel free to use it, to remodel it, to change it to make it more personal.  Praise God if it brings you one step closer to Him.

Heavenly Father,
My spiritual life reminds me of that old rose bush in front of my friend Paul’s house.  Every year Gail comes by and prunes it back until there is nothing left but a few nubs, yet every year it begins to grow and blossom.   As Lent approaches I am painfully aware of the pruning that needs to be done yet again.   Every year I grow closer to you, and every year I allow other things to begin to creep in again.  Give me the courage and will to again reflect on my life, on my focus, and on those branches that need to be cut back, or even completely removed.  Guide me closer to you in all things.  Help me to bring you fully into all areas of my life, and into all relationships.   I want to blossom with fruit worthy of one who you call son!   Infuse me with your Holy Spirit in such a way that my meager branch can begin to resemble the true Vine, that those who know me might know Him.  

This and all things I ask in the name of your Son, Our Lord, Jesus Christ.


His servant and yours,


"He must increase, I must decrease."

A reflection on the readings for Mass on Ash Wednesday: March 1st, 2017