1st rdg 1 Jl 2:12-28 return, repent, rend your hearts
psalm 51 Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned
2nd rdg 2 Cor 5:20-6:2 be reconciled/now is acceptable time
gospel Mt 6:16-18 do deeds in secret, pray in secret, fast in secret
Ash Wednesday brings us an external ritual that calls for some serious internal work. We know that we do not wear ashes as a badge of honor but rather they are a public declaration; “I am a sinner, please pray for me.” This ancient practice is a Christian’s deep embrace of the truth of one’s fragile condition. We comprehend our need for God’s mercy and love. The reception of ashes is accompanied by the exhortation of the readings to live the ongoing conversion of being reconciled to God. Although our sins are the catalyst as it were – the emphasis is not on our sins, not even on us. God is the center. The return to God or the turning to God is what is important. And the surrender of self – the dying to self with Christ in order to fully embrace coming to life with Christ in the wonder of his resurrection is where we are being led.
For so many reasons the monastic tradition “gets” Lent. Isn’t our vow of conversatio morum loosely translated ‘ongoing conversion’? While the exterior of Ash Wednesday commands our attention it is the interior spiritual journey that deserves our effort and that really matters. The Lenten spring is about the transformative experience each believer allows God to draw us into through silence, reflection, practices of discipline, penance, curbing of appetites in order to make room for God, so as to emerge into the newness God alone brings. One can travel the path of one’s own choosing and it may give you a few insights, but God’s desire is to have us participate in a much fuller reality that can only be ours through a deeper union with God. Jesus is telling us in the gospel that the practices are only of value if they bring us to “…the Father…who will repay you.”
And so the message from Paul encourages us to realize that in becoming human Jesus is leading us to the Father. This is a time for us to appreciate that while there are many ways to occupy ourselves the work of faith, the giving oneself to God is what really matters. Doesn’t our monastic day again and again call us to exercise this freedom of choice? I can busy myself about many things that are charitable, that are noble, that are constructive or efficient, that extend my knowledge or competence, but if the doing is apart from the being in and for God, I have misspent my time. It is a matter of focus, of living quite deliberately and the season of Lent affords us a measure of time to be immersed in this deliberate way of living.
Time is a precious commodity. God has all eternity. We, in our finite condition, have this life to prepare for eternity with and in God or … The ‘me’ emphasis of our culture tends to invite us to a thinking process that suggests everything revolves around me: my needs and concerns, or my well being, or my endeavors and goals, my agenda or my feelings. Lent allows us to consider how Jesus lived. Was his time spent on himself and his own needs? The example of his generous spending of himself in behalf of others, spending his time with others challenges this contemporary view. We live for God and for service if we are following Christ. The monastic way is a service of mindfulness of God in behalf of all humanity with our prayers of intercession being offered for each and every human being God has brought into existence. This mindfulness of God – constant turning to God – is also ceaseless praise of the God who loves us so completely and irrevocably that we are never forgotten or neglected. I can’t help but wonder can spending these forty days in mindfulness of God be too difficult or too demanding? Or rather can spending these days in mindfulness of God challenge the illusion of having a full life when we are self centered and help us realize our lives are only truly full when they are God centered? A contemporary author asks if we can move from ‘meism’ to theism and come to a richer self understanding?
There is a very limited examination of conscience that is simply checking off a list of infractions – did that, didn’t do that – never really getting to the important question, am I living my life oriented toward God or not? When Joel asks us to rend our hearts, I would think that it is not a tearing up – an act of destruction – but rather a tearing open, an act of voluntarily making oneself open to God who will come to be at home with and within us if we are courageous and faithful enough to take the risk of losing ourselves for/to God. Jesus did not cling to equality with God but emptied himself for our sake. Lent reminds us that we are on a similar journey with and in Christ.
In his reflections on Lent, Karl Rahner says: the downward motion of the believer, the descent with Christ into the dust of the earth, has become an upward motion, an ascent above the highest heaven. Christianity does not set us free from the flesh or the dust, nor does it by pass them, in fact it goes right through them.
As we approach to receive this external sign today, I hope we are ready to embark with Christ on a much more significant inner journey. May Lent be a rich experience for each one of us in the incredible love God is offering us in this Eucharist and in living the fullness of being incorporated into Christ through baptism.