06Mar Ash Wednesday

*We begin Lent by receiving the ashes of repentance on our foreheads, and plan to prepare well for Easter…

1st Reading: Joel 2:12-18

Return to me with all your heart. Spare your people, Lord

“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.

Responsorial: Psalm 51

Response: Have mercy on us, O Lord, for we have sinned

Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness.
In your compassion blot out my offence.
O wash me more and more from my guilt
and cleanse me from my sin. (R./)

My offences truly I know them;
my sin is always before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned:
what is evil in your sight I have done. (R./)

A pure heart create for me, O God,
put a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
nor deprive me of your holy spirit. (R./)

Give me again the joy of your help;
with a spirit of fervour sustain me.
O Lord, open my lips
and my mouth shall declare your praise. (R./)

2nd Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:20 — 6:2

Do not receive the grace of God in vain

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

Your Father who sees in secret will reward you

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.


A time for Spring-cleaning

As we receive the ashes on our foreheads, we take stock of the purpose of Lent: it is an exercise in cleansing and holy desire. During Lent we are invited to plan some penitential practices: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. We begin Lent by receiving ashes on our foreheads, and plan to prepare well for Easter. Lent lasts forty days in imitation of the time Jesus spent in the desert before starting his public ministry. What is the purpose of Lent? It is to prepare us for a more effective involvement in our vocation as Christians.

“The entire Christian life,” said Augustine, “is an exercise of holy desire.” He does not say that we should annihilate our normal, human desires, but we should raise and purify them. Our desires are far too small if we look for fulfilment only in what this world offers by way of transient satisfactions, but God wants us to have so much more — his very Self. During Lent we seek to tune in to 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.

Fasting is somewhat more 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 appetite for God.

All of us resonate in some way to the ideal of almsgiving. Lent is good time to rid ourselves of some of the clutter in our life. With a bit more vision, could we perhaps do more to serve the needy, not so that people will consider us generous, but to imitate God’s generosity to us?

Augustine speaks of the cleansing of the heart, to free us for 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.”

2 Responses

  1. Joe O'Leary

    “Rend your hearts, and not your garments.” Lent is a time for exploring the heart-rending edges of our existence. Things suddenly become more real in this season. We awaken to our wretched condition, but at the same time to a higher level of vitality as we rediscover the reality of Grace.

    First of all, we awaken to our mortality. “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom,” says the Psalmist (Ps. 90:12, RSV). Nothing is easier than to forget about death, to whittle it down to a mild unease about the time remaining, softened by the assumption that there will be plenty of it. We are all in denial about the death-sentence that hangs over it. Yet God has given us the remedy for the deep anxiety and fear this creates: to consign our lives to God’s keeping, to make of them a pleasing sacrifice, to spend them in generous self-giving, to identify with Christ crucified; only so will we receive our lives back again, to be lived in freedom and joy.

    The next heart-rending reality is sin, and that is even easier to banish from our minds. The prophet singles out the clergy for special mention this morning: “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?’” Were ever timelier words spoken? Can the word of the Lord bring about the conversion of the clergy where the threats of the angry faithful, of journalists and mobs, of civil and ecclesiastical courts, have failed? The Word, if we listen, can shift our lives around, and that painful twist has the shape of the Cross, which is the presence in our lives and in our society of “the Wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). Blithe, frivolous, cynical; or grave, earnest, faithful? — which is the way to follow? The one leads to destruction, the other to life. Can we let the Word yank us from the one and place our feet steadily on the other? “Today is the acceptable time” for such a turn-about.

    The next heart-rending reality is the presence of God. And that too is easy to banish from our minds and hearts. How long will we run around like headless chickens, pursuing unprofitable baubles? “How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies?” (Ps. 4:2). This great season of Grace brings that divine presence to our minds as we hear a voice speaking to us from the Scriptures and from the depths of our hearts: “Return to me.” God is ever present, totally and intimately present, as the very foundation of all that we are, and to turn to God is to recover the fulness of our life. His service is perfect freedom.

    Let’s awaken from our drugged haze of denial and self-immunization and open up anew to the realities of our existence, torn between life and death, good and evil, God and nothingness. Turning in on ourselves and pursuing our own comfort we have broken communion with God, with one another, with the suffering neighbour, and even with ourselves. Time to reach out anew to a merciful God in compunction, to our fellow-Christians in shared projects of compassion, to our unbelieving neighbours in quiet witness, and so to restore the community that can show forth to the world the goodness of its Creator.

  2. Pat Rogers

    Many thanks, Joe. Great food for thought. Perfect start for Lent.

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