ASH WEDNESDAY 2020
February 26, 2020, 7:00 PM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Joel 2:12-18 | Psalm 51:3-6;12-14;17
2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2 | Matthew 6:1-8;16-18
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Today, we welcome, or should I say, begin to endure, yet another Lent. This season of penitence, of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, has changed significantly over my lifetime. When I was a young boy, the adults in my life talked about “giving up”, that is forgoing, something during Lent, be it food, a habit, or something we enjoy, all in commemoration of when Jesus sacrificed his life for humanity’s sake. I want to make clear, however, that I don’t buy into the notion that Jesus was a sacrificial victim who was crucified to appease God’s anger at the sins of humanity.
What really happened was that some very bad people killed Jesus because they considered Jesus a threat to their power. Rather than conform himself to the expectations of the power structure, Jesus allowed himself to be crucified. He did this because Jesus loved the human race of which he was part. What the bad people did not kill, however, was the message of Jesus, which lives on as part of the spiritual presence of Jesus among us and continues to direct us.
Today’s reading message from the prophet Joel calls us to repentance. Repentance is not sorrow for sins, but a turning around, that is, a choice for our lives to take a different direction. Lent is a time of disambiguation and disorientation and reorientation when we get off an unsuccessful path, and at Easter, reorient ourselves on a more successful path.
In very simple language, Lent is the death of a life based on bad values, while Easter is the revival of the good values that give us a better life. Amazingly, this sounds like Baptism, where we die to sin as we go down in the water and rise to new life as we come up out of the water.
In the ancient tradition of the Church, Lent was the time to prepare for the Baptism that would take place on Easter Vigil. While someone can only be baptized once, nonetheless, the dying-and-rising paradigm is a force that continues to transform our lives as we constantly turn from sin and re-orient our lives to do better with the gifts God gave us and in our relationships with other people.
What Lent does is call us to dying and rising that as the common but trite expression goes, is “on steroids.” It’s like upgrading from the standard version of software to the pro version as we emphasize an enhanced three-cornered foundation of Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Lent asks us to do more of each of the foregoing which relates to the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.
We all have, or at least should have daily prayers. We pray from faith, our trust in a God who listens to us and cares for us. Upon rising and upon going to sleep, I customarily say the same three prayers I did as a child: the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be. Other people may use different approaches to prayer than I do, and that’s OK because each of us has a unique relationship with God. But whatever approach you use, Lent is the time for an upgrade. Maybe you add to that some additional prayers, or you read a book of daily Lenten meditations, or you read some scripture, or even sing a song. You will probably recall the saying attributed to Saint Augustine, “the person who sings, prays twice.” Here at Saint Cecilia’s, consistent with our mission to worship God with music, we are upgrading our music during Lent with the addition of a four-voice choir who will sing a Lenten anthem every Sunday. That’s what we’re doing as a parish, but each of you will, I expect, find some way to enhance your personal prayer life. If you need any assistance in doing that, please don’t hesitate to ask me or Deacon Sharon. We are here to help you as your spiritual guides.
Saint Cecilia’s offers you the opportunities to enhance your spiritual life on Wednesdays. In addition to our usual Low Mass at 12:15 PM, we will conduct the Stations of the Cross at 6:40 PM followed by Bible Study at 7:00 PM.
What about fasting? Fasting relates to hope. Part of the reason we fast is to teach our hearts that we do not hope in our own strength, nor in the satisfaction of the food we eat. In fasting, we hope in something or someone stronger and more satisfying. Traditionally, we give up one or more foods during Lent. While there is a sacrificial dimension to that, it is also an opportunity for hope to improve your health, by lowering your blood sugar, your bad cholesterol, and of course, your weight. Undisputed medical research establishes that, if you are like me, losing ten percent of your body weight helps your overall health and longevity. But fasting can, and should, include more than food. In that regard, Pope Francis gives us a pretty good list of eleven suggestions:
☻Fast from hurting words and say kind words.
☻Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.
☻Fast from anger and be filled with patience.
☻Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.
☻Fast from worries and trust in God.
☻Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity.
☻Fast from pressures and be prayerful.
☻Fast from bitterness and fill your heart with joy.
☻Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others.
☻Fast from grudges and be reconciled.
☻Fast from words and be silent so you can listen.
All of those suggestions have something in common: a hope to improve our relationships with other people. As I preached many times previously, Catholic Christianity is not a religion that depends on accepting doctrines and dogmas, or on following rules and regulations or obeying ecclesiastical authorities. The foundation of Catholic Christianity is not any of those things, but the dignity of the human person proclaimed by each of us in our behavior towards each other, especially in those relationships where we repose a significant level of trust in another person, in particular, relations between spouses, between parents and children, and professional relationships such as doctor and patient, psychotherapist and client, and last but not least, between members of the clergy and the laity. In those important relationships, the fasting suggestions of Pope Francis are absolutely necessary for the success of those relationships. They are absolutely necessary because those relationships do not live in a vacuum, but are interconnected to other relationships. If we fast in the manner Pope Francis suggests, we improve the personal relationships not only in our lives but those in an entire corner of the universe. Simply put, individual sacrifices of unhealthy personal behavior give us hope in attaining widely-felt, tangible, and pragmatic benefits.
Widely-felt, tangible and pragmatic benefits to others arise not only from fasting from unhealthy personal behavior, but from the third, and most important, traditional Lenten theme of almsgiving. You may recall Saint Paul in the last verse of the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians imploring us to live with one another in faith, hope and charity, and that the greatest of all was charity. When we’re talking about almsgiving, we’re talking about. Hence, consistent with what Saint Paul said, charity deserves the most attention and emphasis in discussing the three Lenten disciplines.
Almsgiving and other activities that flow from the virtue of charity, however, are not peculiar to Christians. It is a practice common to all major religions. Almsgiving and charity are synonymous. The universality of charity outside of Christianity affirms the objective truth of charity in scripture as a very important pillar of our faith as Catholics. I will explain what that means.
Several millennia ago, during what was known as the Vedic Period of Hinduism, we find the ancient principle of gift-giving called “dana”. Some of its principles are:
☻The gods have not ordained hunger to be our death: even to the well-fed person comes death in various forms;
☻The riches of the liberal never waste away, while the person who will not give finds none for comfort;
☻Those with food in-store who, when the needy comes in miserable case begging for bread to eat, become hard-hearted against them, and when of old finds no one for comfort.
Our Buddhist sisters and brothers hold that giving is one of the three elements of the path of practice as formulated by the Buddha. In Buddhism, the more a person gives – and the more one gives without seeking something in return – the wealthier, in the broadest sense of the word, one will become. Buddhism tells us that by giving, one destroys those acquisitive impulses that ultimately lead to further suffering, and that total willingness to give is the wish-granting gem for fulfilling the hopes of wandering being; it is the sharpest weapon to sever the knot of stinginess; it enhances self-confidence and courage, and it is the basis for universal proclamation of your fame and repute. Put another way, the charitable person is worthy of respect.
In addition to Hindus and Buddhists, almsgiving is part of Islam, and in fact, is one of its so-called “five pillars.” The Muslims call it “Zakat,” an Arabic word meaning, “that which purifies.” The zakat is considered by Muslims to be an act of piety through which one expresses concern for the well-being of fellow Muslims,[ as well as preserving social harmony between the wealthy and the poor. Muslims believe those who give zakat can expect a reward from God in the afterlife while neglecting to give zakat can result in damnation. Zakat is considered part of the covenant between God and a Muslim.
Almsgiving for Christians originated in its Jewish roots. The notion that Jews are parsimonious, that is, stingy with their wealth, could not be further from the truth, and is just one more illustration of the outright stupidity of antisemitism. “Tzedakah” is the Hebrew word for the acts that we call “charity” in English: giving aid, assistance, and money to the poor and needy or to other worthy causes. In Judaism, giving to the poor is not viewed as a generous, magnanimous act; it is simply an act of justice and righteousness, the performance of a duty, giving the poor what is due to them. For a Jew, compassion is a duty, as it should be for all of us. But Christianity, being a religion that comes from a loving heart rather than from law-books, sees charity as arising from love of God and one’s neighbor.
We give alms to show we love someone other than ourselves. Love is the stream from which the entire message of Jesus flows, best summarized in the two Great Commandments, to love God with all one’s heart, mind, and soul, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Those two Great Commandments track why you give to the Church. You give what you give in Church because you love God and your neighbor, to pay the expenses of worship and to help your neighbor. It is not an “either-or”. It is “both-and.”
Our collection basket is an offering of monetary as a symbol of our inner readiness to give God all of ourselves, our hopes and disappointments, our work and leisure and indeed, the whole of our everyday lives.
As a practical matter, churches need money to continue to exist. The money we collect at Mass pays for musicians, rent, electricity, alarm monitoring, janitorial service, publicity, bread and wine, and to give you an idea of our substantial and significant expenses. The monetary contributions everyone makes to bless the continued ministry of Saint Cecilia Catholic Community are, I assure you, most deeply appreciated and are due profound thanks. As you may have noticed, we now place the collection on the Altar as a statement that our community takes almsgiving seriously as an offering to God.
But almsgiving has another dimension beyond the Church walls. It is how we show our love for our neighbor. Here at Saint Cecilia’s we collect used clothing, non-perishable food, bedding, and toiletries to assist the least among us through Well In The Desert, the local agency that ministers to our homeless and hungry populations.
This Lent, I invite you to reflect upon your financial relationship to the church and to those in our area less fortunate than you are. While financial contributions are appreciated, not everyone is capable of that. So even if you can’t do more to help the church with its expenses, take a look in your closets and storage areas for clothing and shoes you haven’t worn in years, or that does not fit you, and bring those items here to the Altar so we can take them to Well In The Desert to help someone who needs them more than you do.
The Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are not designed to mortify your flesh or cause you suffering in any way whatsoever. Their purpose is to improve who you are, to move you forward out of the status quo of your life to accept the new life which comes from the Resurrection. When Lent ends with the joy of Easter, you will feel better than you today. Your relationship with God and your neighbors will be better, you will feel better about yourself and your loved ones, and you will be free from that which obstructs and weighs you down from proceeding on the journey of your life to ultimately become one with God. AMEN.