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LENT: TIME TO LOOK INSIDE YOURSELF
ASH WEDNESDAY – YEAR C
February 10, 2016 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.
I am an extrovert. I enjoy meeting people and interacting with them. I am one of those individuals who is not scared of speaking or singing in front of a crowd. Ash Wednesday, Lent, and Holy Week is a challenge for people like me. The people who do those seasons of the year well are those who groove on inward contemplation, who live an intense interior life with a capacity to reflect on the things of the heart, that which is at the innermost core of our being. That is the part of us to which the prophet Joel, the Psalmist, Saint Paul, and the author of the Gospel according to Matthew are speaking today.
Returning to, and reconciliation with, God, happens inside of ourselves. God does not interact with us the way people do. God’s interaction with us is done in a way unique to God. God communicates with us so unlike the way other humans do. God communicates with us in our hearts, on the inside. Why do we need to be return to, and reconcile with, God at all? The self-centered people populating much of today’s world will ask, “What do I get out of it?” The traditional answer would be that, should we die, we would rather go to heaven than hell, and therefore, we should want to get on God’s good side. We don’t want God mad at us. The people who think about God in this way picture God as an angry judge, ready to punish those who displease God. But that is not the image of God presented in today’s first reading, where God is described as “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, rich in kindness, relenting in punishment, concerned about people, and one who shows pity.” So much of Christianity is infested with the notion of “sinners in the hands of an angry God”, to quote the protestant preacher, Jonathan Edwards. Many so-called Christians judge other people and call for, or at least hope for, divine punishment on those they call sinners.
These kinds of statements, however, fall on deaf ears among those who truly know God, not only through scripture, but as manifested in humanity. That is because the Bible is not the word of God, but Jesus is. Jesus reconciled humanity to God by overcoming death, the evil of all evils because it manifests the absence of life, the absence of the essence of what God really is. God is life. When we see a live person, we can say that God is in that person. And when we reconcile ourselves one to another, we reconcile ourselves to God.
What, exactly, is reconciliation? Is the balancing of an account? Perhaps. In the accounting context, one verifies the amounts of individual transactions and determines if any are missing or in the wrong amount. If all transactions verify and are correctly added, then the account is said to be balanced, or “reconciled.” Reconciliation can also mean those people who are separated forgiving each other’s faults and then moving forward together. In relation to God, both definitions make sense. Lent is the time we examine our spiritual ledgers, comparing our spiritual selves to what God wants us to be and adding to ourselves spiritual things that might be missing. Lent is also a time to seek out those who have wronged us, or that we have wronged, and make some colorable attempt to chart a path forward.
But despite all the preaching that churches, particularly Old Catholic ones, do concerning reconciliation, we see very little of it, even when it would make practical sense. Instead, we see plenty of, “Get out, we don’t want you,” or, “I’m going to take my marbles and go home,” or “You hurt me so badly I can never forgive you,” or “Because of what you’ve done in the past, I can’t trust you anymore.” These behaviors, among other things, have caused the independent catholic movement, and all Christianity, to keep on endlessly dividing, despite the prayer of Jesus “that we all may be one, as I and the Father are one.” I have so many dear friends, bishops, priests, deacons, and laity, insisting on staying in separate camps for whatever reason, whom I wish would put aside their differences and stand at the same altar together to proclaim with tangible action that we are all one in Christ Jesus. My message to all of them is, “isn’t doing what Jesus wants more important than your own stuff?”
Much of the lack of reconciliation is driven by fear of the future resulting in a perceived need for self-protection. People fear being hurt, they fear losing control, they fear exploitation. This all may arise from the needs people have to defend and protect their inner selves so as to avoid exposing their deepest and most sensitive vulnerabilities. Lent is all about looking within oneself at those deep and sensitive vulnerabilities and searching for a way forward.
To paraphrase Saint Paul in today’s second reading, “now is the acceptable time” to do that. That is why our liturgies over the next six weeks will be a bit less bombastic, with simpler and quieter music, to allow us to look within ourselves and think about reconciliation between the opposing parts of our minds and souls, repairing relationships with others, to at least entertain the possibility of forgiveness of those who have wronged us and accepting forgiveness from others offering it to us. In many instances, our attempts to do so will not result in any changes in the status quo, but we will at least have tried, and perhaps started a process that will one day produce results.
The traditional Christian tools for this work on the inside of us are prayer and fasting, both of which Jesus mentions in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus asks us not to pray like hypocrites do, standing on street corners and in places of worship so that they may be seen by others, but instead, go into our inner room and pray to God in secret. What Jesus is saying here is what counts is what goes on in that inner room of our interior selves, where we make our secret connection with God not visible to others. Exploring and tending to our inner selves is what will ultimately produce results our reconciliation with others. To return to a relationship with another person from whom we are estranged, we must begin with a return to God with our whole hearts. Internal change is a necessary precursor to external change. Put another way, to change our relationship with others, we must first change ourselves. The reason is that the reason we became estranged from other people in the first instance is because of the reaction that went on inside ourselves to whatever that other person may have said or done.
Lent can be seen as an invitation to change how we respond to others in a way that preserves relationships between persons. We are reminded of that as we receive ashes with the words, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” That tells us that the shortness of life in the grand scheme of the universe is a very good reason to value our personal relationships, in church, in our families, and elsewhere.
Jesus also talks about fasting. Traditionally, Christians reduced the quantity of the food they ate during Lent, and on all Fridays of the year abstained from meat. Modernly, Catholics fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and continue to observe abstinence from meat on the Fridays of Lent. The intent was to commemorate the forty days Jesus fasted in the desert wilderness.
You may wonder why Lent starts on a Wednesday. That’s because Sundays and the day before Easter are not part of Lent. The Lenten fast does not apply on Sunday. The way Lent is calculated is this: six days times six weeks equals thirty six days; add four days before the first week, and you have forty days. Anyways, the usual result of the Lenten fast is that many people lose weight during Lent, and, unless you are anorexic, that’s a good thing.
But more important, fasting also has utility as a spiritual discipline. Hunger for food is a very strong bodily desire. If you need a demonstration of that, watch me after Sunday Mass. Priests are very human when it comes to food. But when we fast, once we learn to ignore the hunger pains, our attention is turned to prayer instead of food, and we are better able to do the internal spiritual work of reconciling ourselves to God by evaluating our lives to seriously turn away from sin, embrace the Gospel, and start a new way of life by following Jesus more closely.
Part of reconciling oneself to God is the Sacrament of Reconciliation, where we examine our consciences and obtain absolution. Reconciliation is what God does. We prepare for it by opening ourselves up, by reflecting upon the areas of darkness in our lives into which God so deeply desires to shine a light. When we confess our sins, we came as children to a parent seeking not only forgiveness, but love. Should you feel the need to do so, I invite you to call me and schedule a private confession. I’m solemnly bound to keep absolutely secret anything you tell me during a confession, so you’re assured of complete confidentiality. I can tell you that California makes exceptions to confidential communications in many circumstances, but the secrecy of the confessional is absolute with no exceptions. When we go to confession, God will always shine light into these important parts of our lives to help us experience a genuine desire for forgiveness and healing. God always reveals us to ourselves, and in the process, we experience on God’s reconciling, healing love.
Real love isn’t our love for God, but God’s love for us. God knows the secrets of our hearts, and never closes His merciful ears to our prayers, because God’s love for us is unconditional. Although God may sometimes not like our behavior, nothing we do, nothing we fail to do, will ever estrange us from God’s love. The unconditional nature of God’s love is what distinguishes God from love between human persons, whose love for each other is often conditional. Human beings tend to condition their love for another person on feeling safe with the other person and on the other person meeting some need for the relationship to exist. By contrast, God is able to love us unconditionally because God does not fear us and because God is self-sufficient.
As your pastor, I try to love all of you to the best of my ability, but sometimes I fail. I too, am a sinner in need of reconciliation to God. AMEN.