22 Feb. Ash Wednesday
Joel 2: 12 – 18 Return to me with all your heart.
2 Cor 5:20ff Do not receive the grace of God in vain.
Matt 6:1-6ff Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
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Lent: A time of holy desire
As we receive the ashes on our foreheads, let’s remember the purpose of Lent: it is an exercise in holy desire, helped by some penitential practices: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
We begin this holy season by receiving ashes on our foreheads in the sign of a cross. Lent lasts forty days in imitation of the time Jesus spent in the desert before starting out on his public ministry. What is the purpose of Lent? It is to strengthen holy desires in us, to prepare us for a more effective involvement in our vocation as Christians.
“The entire life of a good Christian,” said St Augustine, “is an exercise of holy desire.” He does not say that we should annihilate our desires. On the contrary we should raise and purify them. Our desires are far too small if we look for fulfilment only in what this world offers, but God wants us to have so much more – his very Self. During Lent we seek to intensify our higher desires – our longing for God. In today’s Gospel Jesus shows the way: prayer, fasting and almsgiving, the classic Lenten practices.
Of these, prayer has first place. Our eternity will be an eternal relationship with the living God in the Communion of Saints. That relationship begins in this life – or it does not begin at all. Our main prayer is by sharing in the Mass, the loving sacrifice of Christ which opens heaven to us. Prayer is the foundation of our friendship with God, and it opens the way to eternal life.
Then comes fasting, which is somewhat tricky for us today. While we should certainly enjoy food and the conviviality that often accompanies a good meal, we should also find a place for fasting. The goal of Lenten fasting is not to have a sleek body one can be proud of. Some saints were quite corpulent, others were virtual skeletons, but they had this in common: They practiced voluntary self-denial in order to sharpen their sense of God.
Finally, we come to almsgiving. Lent is good time get rid of some of the clutter in one’s life. With a bit more vision, I could better serve the needy. We should do this not so that people will consider us generous, but to imitate God’s generosity. If we did, our world would not have children living in dire want.
Finally, note St Augustine’s description of the cleansing necessary for the exercise of holy desire: “This will be effective only to the extent that we free ourselves from infatuation with this world. Like the example I have used already, of filling an empty container. God means to fill each of you with what is good; so cast out what is bad! If he wishes to fill you with honey and you are full of sour wine, where is the honey to go? The vessel must be emptied of its contents and then be cleansed.”
First Reading: Joel 2: 12 – 18
“Now, now,” says the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil. Who knows whether he will not turn and repent, and leave a blessing behind him, a cereal offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God?
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants.
Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep and say, “Spare your people, O LORD, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, `Where is their God?'” Then the LORD became jealous for his land, and had pity on his people.
Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:20 – 6:2
We are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!
Gospel: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
Jesus said to his disciples, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.