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LENT: TIME TO LOOK WITHIN OURSELVES
ASH WEDNESDAY – YEAR C
March 06, 2019 7:00 PM Sung Mass
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.
Last Sunday, I talked about how Jesus dislikes hypocrisy and hypocrites. I mentioned how Jesus doesn’t like us to find fault with someone else when we ourselves are not without fault, and how bad trees cannot bear good fruit, a metaphor for the idea that you cannot get away with faking who you are. In today’s Gospel, Jesus continues his campaign against hypocrisy as he talks about the three traditional forms of Lenten observance: almsgiving, prayer and fasting.
First, almsgiving. Ostensibly, Jesus implores us not to make a big deal out of our philanthropic endeavors. What Jesus condemns would be a donor using the media to announce how much is being donated to a particular charity. But there again, it depends on the spirit in which it is done: is the donor doing it to massage the donor’s ego, or is the donor trying to set an example to encourage others to give? I think Jesus would think well of the latter situation. Jesus would see that person as showing good fruit from a good tree. Again, as I said last Sunday with regard to interpreting scripture, “context is everything.” A story we will read later this year has Jesus comparing rich people putting large sums of money, representing a fraction of their total wealth, into a collection box in the Temple at Jerusalem and a poor widow giving all the money she had to her name. The point Jesus made was for us to give from our substance, not from just our surplus. Lent is a time for us to reflect on that idea.
Always remember, Jesus was not a Christian. Jesus was Jewish. He worshipped as a Jew. The scriptures that he read were the Jewish scriptures. The Gospels, all written by Jews, place him in the Jewish Temple at Jerusalem temple many times. The frame of reference from which Jesus was speaking in today’s Gospel reflected his Jewishness. Prayer and Fasting are part of Jewish tradition. So, therefore, Jesus fasting and praying for forty days in the wilderness in preparation for His ministry would have been a natural thing for him to do.
Fasting has great 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.
In today’s first reading, we hear Old Testament prophet Joel imploring the religious authorities to “proclaim a fast and call a solemn assembly.” As in last Sunday’s Gospel, what Jesus was against were members of the religious elite boasting ostentatiously about their devotional practices, when all that really counts is a heart that expresses the true and honest inner self we show God.
At Saint Cecilia Catholic Community, we are unashamedly, and unapologetically, what’s called, “high church,” or as Bishop Armando might say, “iglesia alta.” We sing most of the Mass, most of the time. We ring bells. We wear the traditional vestments. We have incense whenever we have enough servers.
In our local area, most other churches of the Catholic tradition, and by that I mean Old Catholic like we are, the Roman Catholics, the Episcopalians, and the Lutherans, are all varying degrees of what’s called “low church”, meaning they are quite informal in comparison to us in the overall way they conduct their services. Their priests don’t chant, and they don’t sing anywhere near as much of the service as we do. They don’t use bells; they hardly ever have incense, and in many cases, the clergy don’t wear the traditional vestments as we do. To them, all the “fancy stuff” is a distraction from the central message. But the concept of glorifying simplicity does not work. The so-called “fancy stuff” drives home the substance of our faith directly into our hearts and souls. In particular, music has a way of penetrating us in ways the spoken word cannot. No wonder Saint Augustine said, “When you sing, you pray twice.”
Jesus was not upset with ritual per se. After all, Jesus was part of what was, in his day, a highly ritualistic religion. You can see that for yourself when you read the Old Testament, particularly the Books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, First and Second Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah and First and Second Maccabees. Vestments, incense, bells, choral and instrumental music, are all there. So what we do here is nothing new. Read those parts of the Bible, and you will see that the Judaism that Jesus knew was very ritualistic. What bothered Jesus, however, was insincere ritual, where the externals do not reflect what’s going on inside of us. To quote Rabbi Gamaliel the second, a Jewish contemporary of early Christian scholars, “no disciple whose inside is not like his outside should enter the schoolhouse. He must be like the Ark of the Covenant, gold within as without”
Here at Saint Cecilia’s, the ritual we do comes from deep within our hearts and souls. It is not a show for the sake of a show. It acts out our awe at the transcendent glory of God, our sense of reverence for all God is and all God does. When we pray by singing here, we are not putting on a theatrical production to entertain. What we do is a sincere expression of our feeling that God is so much greater than all of us put together, that God is worthy of honor and blessing for the infinite gifts God bestows on us, most importantly, the gifts of life itself and the people in our lives.
Every fall, the Jewish community celebrates its New Year, or Rosh Hashanah, and then ten days later, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. During that intervening ten day period, known as the Days of Awe, a Jew tries to amend his or her behavior and seek forgiveness for wrongs done against God and other people. Yom Kippur also traditionally includes a twenty-five hour fast from food and drink, sex, leather shoes, perfume, and bathing as well as multiple prayer services.
Our spiritual practices during Lent are patterned after those of our Jewish sisters and brothers during the Days of Awe, as we focus on our inner self. Lent is a time for us to move toward the inward contemplation in which Jesus no doubt engaged during the forty days he fasted in the wilderness. Lent is a time to intensify our interior life in many ways, particularly, spiritual self-improvement. That will be different for each of us.
For myself, I’m going to concentrate on learning more about the Judaism from which Jesus came to enable me to better understand who Jesus was and the origins of the teachings He presents to us. Yesterday, a friend of mine attended Mass yesterday for our Shrove Tuesday celebration. She asked me about our Lenten reading list. I have prepared a list which you will find on the table of the Fellowship area, but in particular, I’d recommend “Jesus, the Misunderstood Jew” and “Entering the Passion of Jesus”. Both are authored by Amy Jill Levine, a Jewish New Testament Scholar. She teaches at Vanderbilt University, preparing students for Christian ministry in multiple denominations. I will be reading these two books throughout Lent and Holy Week, and will comment on them from time to time on my blog. These books are available on smile dot amazon dot com, where you can designate Saint Cecilia Catholic Community to receive a donation from Amazon.
During Lent, we should try to develop our 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. 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.
Lent is the time to look deeply within one’s sensitive vulnerabilities and search 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 more subdued, with 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.
Part of reconciling oneself to God is the Sacrament of Reconciliation, commonly called “confession”, 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 come 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. However, I emphasize: confession is not required for anyone. I follow the rule of, “all may, some should, and none must.”
I’m solemnly bound to keep absolutely secret anything you tell me during a sacramental confession, so you’re assured of complete confidentiality. In fact, I never even identify who’s been to confession and who has not. Having been a lawyer, I can tell you that California law makes exceptions to confidential communications in many circumstances, but the secrecy of the confessional is absolute in this State, 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.
Finally, I will explain a little bit about Ash Wednesday. An exclusive gesture proper to the first day of Lent is the imposition of ashes. What is its most significant meaning? It is certainly not merely ritualistic, but something very deep that touches our hearts. The words, “Remember, O Soul, that thy body is dust and unto dust it shall return,” is a reminder that the body is 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, advice that still retains its salutary value for us: external gestures must always be matched by a sincere heart and consistent behavior. AMEN.