Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019
- On March 8, 2019
We have been instructed by the readings from the Word of God familiar for this day – the Prophet Joel, the Second Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, and a part of the Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew. We have been presented with the Lord’s words, which are the foundation of the traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and good works.
It is likely that many of us, either over the course of the last several days, or the last several minutes, have given some thought to what we might “do” for Lent this year; to plan our observance of this Season. Quite often this consists of some self-imposed discipline, bodily mortification or abstinence from some favorite food or drink. These are all well and good, provided that we undertake them intentionally to address those issues in our life in need of amendment.
We need be careful about two things, I think, in this “doing” something for Lent. On the one hand, we may fall into the trap of satisfaction of “doing something” for God, as though we providing some nice thing to supply the needs of the Almighty. In a culture that admires the “doers”, the people who get something done, we can think that we are doing something on behalf of our salvation. While goodness of life will inevitably show itself in one’s actions, we must beware, in our culture of self-help and self-improvement, lest we think we are working out our salvation all on our own. We can all too easily forget that it is by God’s grace alone that we are saved, and that, ultimately, all we can give in return is praise and thanksgiving for God’s superabundant mercy, which never tires of forgiving us our offenses great and small.
The other danger is that we can become perhaps overly impressed with our somewhat modest efforts at penance, whereby giving up chocolate for Lent (perhaps Sundays excepted) we feel that we are somehow on a par with Saint Polycarp who was burned alive for his fidelity to Christ. Becoming too absorbed with our self-imposed penances can perhaps obscure our appreciation of the magnitude of the evil of sin and our complicity in it. We have become so accustomed to the presence of evil in the world and in the church that we have become almost numbed to it and are almost willing to accept it as simply the way things are.
The Season of Lent is here to remind us that it was not supposed to be this way. It is the awful reality of human pride and self-centeredness, illustrated and taught so clearly for us the stories at the beginning of the inspired Scriptures, which destroyed the peace, harmony and grace intended by the God who is love. We are all complicity in this, as we know. Indeed if we need any evidence of Original Sin, we need look only at the world around us.
Lent is indeed a season of penance. If focuses our attention of the reality that, in the face of the utter devastation of sin, the only remedy was the coming into our world of the Son of God, who, in loving trust and obedience, took the entire weight of the sin of the world on himself and was crushed in the cruel torture of the cross. In the face of such an enormity as the murder of the innocent Son of God, our poor penances are pale indeed. What we pray for in this Mass is that our Lenten fast may be pleasing to God and a healing remedy. It is indeed healing that we need, but it is a healing that we can only accept from God. We cannot cure ourselves.
So perhaps our Lenten observance should, most of all, be a commitment to prayer, to spend time listening to God so that we, who have received the gift of the Holy Spirit in Baptism and Confirmation, may begin to learn the gentle promptings of the Spirit and come to peace. Perhaps instead of trying to do more ourselves, we need to be open to allowing God to do something more in our life. Perhaps is needs to be a time for us to come before God in all honesty and ask both God and ourselves who is the man or woman I ought to be, and how ever do I become that person, for we know that we continually fall short by our own efforts. Perhaps it is a time for us to commit ourselves to implore God’s mercy and forgiveness for ourselves and for the whole world, to acknowledge that we are sinners, complicit in some way in the ills of the world, and to open ourselves to that repentance which changes us.
In speaking to his disciples at the Last Supper, before going to pray with them in the garden the night he was to be betrayed and suffer the agony of the cross, Jesus gave us a new commandment. He told us: I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. Is our love such as to mark us clearly as followers of Jesus of Nazareth? Have we ever given ourselves over even to attempting to master the discipline and self-sacrifice which authentic love requires? The Prophet Joel asks today, Why should they say among the peoples, “Where is their God?” Could it be that the peoples ask that same question today because they fail to see in us, who claim to be disciples of Jesus, the love which is the authentic mark of his followers? Do we take our directions from the culture, from our political party, from celebrities, or from the Son of God, Jesus Christ Our Lord, who handed himself over to evil men and suffered the agony of the cross so that we might be saved?
Yes, this could indeed be an acceptable time and a day of salvation if we but open ourselves to God’s forgiveness and healing grace. So perhaps what we need to “do” for Lent is nothing, but after the example of the only one who did not need to do penance, Mary Mother of God, we are to hear the Word of God and keep it.
Abbot Placid Solari, O.S.B.