Ash Wednesday – Year A
February 22, 2023 – 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 6:1-6; 16-18
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Today is the beginning of Lent, a time of penance and reconciliation. Lent was originally a period of preparation for Easter baptisms. Lent is also traditionally the forty-day season of preparation for Easter. The readings today stress, above all, inwardness, a repentant heart, and reconciliation. Lent is a time for self-examination.
Every car or truck carries in the glove compartment a maintenance schedule. Having your oil changed, getting your tires rotated and balanced, and checking the rest of the engine keeps your vehicle in excellent shape. For our bodies, we have, or should have, an annual physical examination and a yearly eye exam, and we should go to the dentist to have our teeth cleaned and examined by a dentist. Preventative health will keep us in great shape and could be the way that serious health issues are detected. The same is true for our spiritual health. Lent is our time for spiritual self-examination. We need to look at our spiritual selves very carefully.
In the penitential liturgy of the First Reading, God tells us through the Prophet Joel: “Return to me with all your heart… and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Lent focuses on our inward selves and hearts, and that is where ashes enter the picture. An exclusive gesture proper to the first day of Lent is the imposition of ashes.
What is the most significant meaning of ashes? Ashes are not merely ritualistic but something profound that touches our hearts. The words traditionally associated with the imposition of ashes are, “Remember, you are dust, and unto dust, you shall return,” is a reminder that our bodies are not immortal and that we must turn our attention to that within us which truly is immortal, that is, our inward selves. The imposition of ashes makes us understand the timeliness of the Prophet Joel’s advice echoed in the First Reading, “Rend your hearts and not your garments” this is advice that still retains its salutary value for us: external gestures must always be matched by a sincere heart and consistent behavior.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus invites us to put externals aside and pray, fast, and give alms “in secret,” that is, from the interior of our hearts. To quote Pope Francis, “To return to the Lord “with all one’s heart” means taking the path of a conversion that is neither superficial nor transient but is a spiritual journey that reaches the deepest place of our self.
The reconciliation Saint Paul speaks about in today’s second Reading means a renewal of creation by remaking one’s interior.
In asking us to fast, Jesus is inviting the disciples to renounce one’s self for the sake of the kingdom of God. Renunciation of the self during this Lenten season is much more than the renunciation of something like food. Lent is fasting from bad attitudes and destructive behavior that have become part of us.
When we renounce the self and forget about the public praise of who we are, we renounce a whole way of life, attitudes, values, and perspectives.
We are proclaiming a resounding “No” to the attitude that we are better than others.
We are proclaiming a resounding “No” to the idea that God answers only some people’s prayers.
We are proclaiming a resounding “No” to the perspective that our opinions are the only possible correct positions.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus invites us to do the three works of mercy found in the Old Testament: fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. Let me talk to you about those things on a practical level.
First, fasting. The first thing that comes to mind when many people think about Lent is giving up, fasting, from something, usually food, during Lent. The traditional rules for the Lenten Fast are that one eats one full meal per day plus two smaller meals that together are not equal to a full meal, and in addition, one abstains from meat on Fridays during Lent. While these disciplines may be helpful to some people, they do not speak to the spiritual orientations of many people. Yet, fasting is still an important spiritual discipline for everyone. So from what can you fast instead of food? Here are some ideas. Remember that as to the Lenten Fast, there is no “one size fits all.”
–Fast from screens. Many of us are constantly in front of our computers, tablets, and phones. Try setting aside an hour or two a day when you will not be on your phone, tablet, or computer.
–Fast from idle conversation. If you talk just to talk or get together with people to “fill a void” in your life, then you need to step back and assess how this is helping you grow closer to God.
— It may seem strange to think, but it is possible to be addicted to pity. We get a dopamine flood of satisfaction from people feeling sorry for us and knowing how “difficult” our situations are. For some, complaining may feel like honesty; pretending to be joyful would be a lie; therefore, we must always burden everyone else with our woes. I’m not telling you not to feel pain or to pretend everything is just peachy all the time; in fact just the opposite. I suggest that you run to God with your woes rather than people.
–Fast from entertainment. Constant stimulus makes it impossible for us to be quiet, settle our hearts, and get in touch with the deeper side of our spirit. It is impossible to pray or contemplate anything of transcendent value if our brains are full of conflicting noises and images that don’t allow us to rest. Remember that the Lenten fast does not include Sundays, so try abstaining from Forensic Files and Family Feud Monday through Saturday.
These are just a few ways to fast for spiritual benefit in ways that don’t involve food.
Second, prayer. You can make a point of it to find a few minutes each day to be with Jesus. Just be with him. You do not have to say anything; it is better if you listen to what He has to say to you. The more we get into the habit of praying regularly, turning to God and asking God to be in God’s presence and ask for God’s help, or asking God to look after other people in some way, the more we’re opening ourselves to God’s influence on us, and the more we become like God.
My daily prayers are very simple and haven’t changed over the years. I make the sign of the cross and pray the “Our Father” and the “Hail Mary.” At mealtime, I thank God for being married to Deacon Sharon and bless the food set before us.
Prayer affects us when we persevere over time, bringing us close to God and making us like God. And that has a knock-on effect as we become a focus of God’s Reign among the people around us.
Third, Almsgiving. Lent should be a time for generosity. Nothing makes you more spiritually mature than to be generous, able to forget about yourself, and to think about others. Acts of kindness and generosity bring out the best in you. But do it all for God, not for others, not to make a display to seek the admiration of others.
Recently, I saw a news story about a man who went to a pharmacy to pick up a prescription. The high cost of his medication surprised him. While he could afford it, he asked the clerk if she knew people who could not afford their medication. She said that, yes, many people were in the situation. So the man left the clerk with a hundred-dollar bill for the clerk to use to help people who could not afford their prescriptions. He also told the clerk he would return periodically with money to help people as often as possible. It turned out he did so frequently. But he had one stipulation: he insisted on being anonymous. He continued to help people over many years. Then, one day, he died. He told his family before he passed that they could tell the world about his generosity when he was gone, which his family did when they called news organizations. The point is that the man focused on helping those in need, not gaining notoriety.
A person is forged in the interior, in good or bad thoughts, good or evil decisions, just or unjust behavior, and truthful or deceptive words. Jesus Christ has come into the world to change humankind from within. What he did and said is a true expression of his heart and sets the pattern for our hearts.
Our contemporary culture reflects a characteristic weakness. Unfortunately, the United States and Europe are extroverted cultures. People don’t want to examine and resolve problems thoughtfully, and we don’t do much looking within ourselves, like mediation, contemplation, or even research. They shoot from the hip based on feelings.
So what would happen if we stopped the business of our lives and took the time to look within ourselves? The phrase in today’s First Reading, “Return to me with all your heart,” does not involve only individuals but extends to the community, and it is a summons addressed to everyone.
Most importantly, I see a need for our country to look inward at attitudes towards other countries, people who are different from us, and our picture of our neighbors. Jesus proclaimed two Great Commandments to us: love God with all our hearts, minds, and souls, and love our neighbors as ourselves. Everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, was created in God’s image. So when we love others, we love God at the same time. There are some things from which we as a country should be fasting permanently, like anti-semitism, racism, sexism, and homophobia. Lent is our time to attempt to begin avoiding those behaviors and make that avoidance permanent.
Lent is a time to bring reality and humility into our lives and not brag about it. We should take these forty days to repent, reflect, and return to the Gospel. In doing that, we remember what we are made of—and what we were made to become.
Our lives are a journey where our ultimate destination is to be like God, to become part of God, and to become one with God. Lent is our time to stop during that journey so we can pause to be sure we are headed in that direction. AMEN.