Father David's Reflection for Ash Wednesday
When did you last call into question the goal of your life? When is the last time you decided to change your attitude about something? Or readjusted your priorities? What is the last significant change you made in your lifestyle, your way of living?
Do you feel you are going nowhere spiritually? In a rut of religious routine?
Do you feel trapped by your job or family obligations? Is your stress level high? Do you feel you are caught in a rat race, have your "nose to the grindstone"?
Do you wish you could just get away and think for a while? Re-evaluate your situation? Make some changes?
Lent is a season built into the Liturgical Year to help you do this. It doesn't give you "time off" from your job or family obligations, but it does give you some help in "distancing yourself" mentally and emotionally in order to re-think, re- evaluate and re-tool.
The Entrance Antiphon for today's Mass is a profession of faith. We affirm our trust in God's mercy, and declare to him with trust, "You hate nothing you have created." God always desires our good. He doesn't want things to be bad for us on earth. Even if we are messed up by our own fault; we insist on believing, "You overlook the sins of all and bring them to repentance."
It is never "too late" with God; he is always willing to help us get control of our lives, redirect our course, change whatever needs changing. He is willing and able. We conclude the Entrance Antiphon saying that God is not just another helper or adviser. No, "You are the Lord our God!" (see Wisdom 11:24-27). You can accomplish what you promise!
In the Opening Prayer of today's Mass we ask that this "season of repentance," which means "season of mind-changing, of re-evaluation" - will "bring us the blessing of your forgiveness," which we take for granted, but also "the gift of your light," so that we will see more clearly how to walk in the path that leads to "life to the full" (John 10:10). We must look to see light, but the promise of it makes us willing to do that.
The Blessing and Giving of Ashes reminds us that this world, like our lives, is of relatively short duration. We get the ashes by burning the palms we carried in procession on Passion (Palm) Sunday as the people did when they thought Jesus was entering Jerusalem to reign as king. He was, but not according to this world's understanding of kingship and power. And so we display the palms in our homes all year as a symbol of the illusory power and short-lived glory of this world. Then in preparation for Lent we turn them to ashes in a dramatic rejection of all that is false and seductive in our culture.
But the Blessing prayer's focus is on hope: hope that Lent will be for us a "preparation for the joy of Easter" just as all life prepares us "to live with the risen Christ" forever. For Christians, at death "life is changed, not ended. When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven." And so "the sadness of death gives way to the bright promise of immortality" (Preface I for Christian Death). This is the theme of the Lenten Prefaces: new hope and new life.
Speaking to the Father, the Church calls Lent "this great season of grace. your gift to your family, to renew us in spirit." During Lent "you bring the image of your Son to perfection within us." You raise our minds to you, you help us grow in holiness." "You give us strength to purify our hearts, to control our desires, and so to serve you in freedom. You teach us to live in this passing world with our heart set on the world that will never end."No wonder the Church calls Lent "this joyful season when we prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery [of death and resurrection] with mind and heart renewed."
The Response to the first reading is "Be merciful O Lord, for we have sinned" (Psalm 51). But the whole Responsorial Psalm encapsulates the themes of all three readings.
"For I acknowledge my offense. I have done what is evil in your sight."
Joel 2: 12-18 calls us to deep and honest soul-searching: "Rend your hearts, not your garments.." Lent is not just a time just to do some things that are traditional in the Church - even though these are very helpful. We can fast or "give up something" for Lent, or participate in "Lenten devotions" like the Stations of the Cross (Via Crucis) and still remain basically unchanged in our attitudes, values, priorities and basic way of living. This is not keeping Lent.
To "do penance" means to do something that expresses repentance. And "repentance" (metanoia) means a "change of mind." To "repent" does not mean to be sorry for the same old faults we know are wrong but keep falling into. To "repent" means to recognize the wrong, the destructiveness, the mediocrity in things we are taking for granted. It means to convert to a higher standard of morality.
"A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me."
In Matthew 6: 1-18 Jesus calls us to make our religion our spirituality. When authentic, the two are identified; but for many people today "religion" just means believing the right doctrines, keeping the right rules, observing the right practices. It can be an impersonal, even a routine, system involving very little keeping the right rules, observing the right practices. It can be an impersonal, even a routine, system involving very little personal interaction with God.
"Spirituality," on the other hand, "is associated with the personal, the affective, the experiential, and the thoughtful." Spirituality is a certain awakening to life that relates us more deeply to life [and to God as person]. The imagination is opened to new possibility. Life can be seen and heard in a new way.
There is recognition that there are deeper currents operating in life. There are dimensions of life yet to be explored, all of which offer greater depth, connection, centeredness and wholeness (David Ranson, Across the Great Divide, pp. 9, 17. St. Paul's Publications, www.stpauls.com.au).
Spirituality for Christians is a live, personal, dynamic, exciting, growth- producing life of interaction with Jesus Christ as Savior and Teacher. Jesus teaches to do our religious acts, not as conforming to what is "expected" of us as Christians, but as immediate, personal, conscious acts of saying something to God.
"Pray to your Father in private."
Jesus is not saying we should avoid praying with others or practicing what is traditional in our religion. He is saying if we only do what we are "supposed" to do, we will not know if we are doing it because we ourselves know and love God, or just because it is the "religious" thing to do. We need to express our- selves to God in some ways that are just personal to us. Then we know God is our God; not just the God of our family and friends. This brings "religion" to life: "A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.. Give me back the joy of your salvation, and a willing spirit sustain in me." "Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me."
2Corinthians 5:20 to 6:2 teaches the true mystery of our redemption. Jesus does not just "pardon" our sins (which would leave us basically unchanged), but "takes away the sins of the world." He did this by the mystery of taking us, with all of our sins, into his body on the cross - by which "God made him who did not know sin to be sin" - so that in Baptism we could die in him and rise with him to live as his new, reborn, risen body on earth, a "new creation" with no "record" of sins committed in our previous life. ".So that in him we might be- come the very holiness of God."
Do I see Lent now as a time of exciting, encouraging possibility? Do I feel a desire to use Lent, to take a distance from my life and look at things from a new perspective?
Read God's word during Lent with a searching mind and an open heart, listening for his Spirit. Reflect on what you read. Relate it to your life. Try to change some things in your attitudes, values and priorities.