Ash Wednesday – Year B
February 17, 2021 – 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.

In today’s world, computers are ubiquitous. We use them for nearly everything we do in both our business and personal lives.  The phone you carry with you is a computer that enables you to talk to people, send text messages, do your banking, and socialize on Snapchat, Pinterest, Facebook, TikTok, and WhatsApp.

Every once in a while, your computer or phone freezes and becomes dysfunctional because its microprocessor is overloaded and/or the data it has been handling becomes disorganized. If you want to continue using your device, you will have to reboot it so you can start all over from scratch with a clean memory. When you reboot your system, the reboot clears the memory, and when the device is restarted, its software reloads, and it becomes ready for use once again.

Lent is our time for rebooting, to prepare to start over again with the new life that comes with Easter Sunday.  Lent is a period of preparation during which we examine who we are and where we are going to give us that fresh start that comes with Easter. Lent gives us the opportunity to flush away the bad things within us so that we may start afresh. After all, Easter comes in the springtime, when the leaves come back to life on trees, flowers bloom, eggs hatch, and bunnies are born.

Jesus and his disciples were not Christians. They were all Jewish. Not surprisingly, the practices of Judaism greatly influenced them. 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. 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.

To consider Lent a time to prepare for a new life in Jesus is a mainstream idea of classic Christianity.  The traditional ways of doing that are through each of us examining who and what we are and changing the direction of our lives back towards God while engaging in the time-honored rituals of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, reimagined for each of us individually and fashioned to the exigencies of our contemporary world.

When I was a child, the adults around me “gave up something for Lent.” That is, they fasted, some from alcoholic beverages, others from sweets, and still others from card games. As far as prayer goes, perhaps they said the Rosary more often or attended the Stations of the Cross, said the daily offices of morning and evening prayer, or even went to Mass every day in Lent!

Almsgiving was the toughest as most of the people around me barely had enough money to take care of themselves, let alone others unless sufficient guilt rose to the surface of their soul motivating them to put a few extra dollars in the collection plate.

In doing all of that, the church world around me was walking zombie-like through familiar rituals for the sake of the rituals themselves without stopping to consider the meanings behind those conventional Lenten traditions. As much as some love rituals, getting wrapped up in the details of the rituals themselves often obscures their meaning.

But the problems generated by over-attention to the complexities of rituals are hardly an excuse to forget rituals altogether. Some parts of the Christian world, both Catholic and Protestant, pride themselves on such extreme austere simplicity to the point where sterile boredom excises the heart and soul of our relationship with God. Those who tire of ritual become easy marks for fundamentalist street-corner scriptural literalists preaching an all-too-easy-to-absorb simplistic orientation towards life obscuring the mystery that God truly is.

Lent calls us to jar ourselves from, and question, our self-image, our values, and our goals. None of us are perfect. All of us can improve and do better. The three traditional Lenten disciplines of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving are efficacious ways to help us do that.

Fasting relates not to sackcloth and ashes but 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 for something or someone stronger and more satisfying. In fasting, Jesus invites his disciples to renounce themselves for the sake of the kingdom of God. Traditionally, we give up one or more foods during Lent, but fasting can, and should, include more than food.

How about fasting from bad attitudes and destructive behavior that have become part of us? There are people in the public power structure who ought to consider fasting from arrogance, which is the notion that,

“I am better than all of you”;

“I don’t have to follow the same rules you must obey”;

“I know everything, and I don’t have to tell you the sources of my knowledge”; and, therefore,

“I can and will use my power as a public official to make you do as I say.”

What is most distressing is that people like that seek public praise for acting that way. But when everyone, particularly public officials, instead of arrogance, adopts the humility that following Jesus requires, they will renounce a whole way of life and take on new attitudes, values, and perspectives that will require us to say “No” to much that constitutes our comfort zone.

We must say “No” to the attitude that we are better than others.

We must say “No” to the perspective that our position is the only possible correct position.

We must say “No” to those who say, “Do as I say, not as I do.”

We must say “No” to those who play “hide the ball.”

We must say “No” to the notion that some people ought to be in control of everyone else without their consent.

How about substituting prayer for arrogance? Lent is definitely a time to deepen your prayer life, to go beyond the simple memorized prayers of our childhood. Prayer, however, is more than the words we say. Prayer is an attitude and orientation towards God.  When we think of Lenten prayers, we usually think of prayers of contrition, prayers that say to God, “I am sorry I have sinned,” and prayers of repentance, telling God, “I am going to turn around and do better.” But also important is gratitude, thanking God for whatever gifts God gave you and whatever you have accomplished.

Think about developing a habit of regular prayer. When we persevere in prayer over time, we get closer to God and become like God, who is full of compassion and mercy, long-suffering, slow to anger, and of great goodness.  The more we get into the habit of praying regularly, we will habituate turning to God and asking God for God’s presence and help, and asking God to look after other people in some way. In so doing, we open ourselves to God’s influence on us and become more like God.

Almsgiving in Lent challenges our generosity. Lent should be a time of being generous. 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.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus invites us to put externals to one side and pray, fast. and give alms “in secret,” that is, from the interior of our heart. To quote Pope Francis, “To return to the Lord “with all one’s heart,” as the prophet Joel urges us in today’s first reading, means taking a path of conversion that is neither superficial nor transient, but is a spiritual journey that reaches the deepest place of our self. Most important, we do our fasting, prayer, and almsgiving all for God, not to make a display of it, as Jesus warns us against doing.

Jesus implores us to not make a big deal of fasting, to pray in a closed room, and to give alms in secret. What Jesus tells us is not to make our Lenten disciplines an occasion for going one-up on others. What helps us do that is to turn our focus from that which is outside ourselves to that which is within us.

While Christmas and Easter emphasize the celebration of our lives with God and others by appealing to the extroverted aspects of the human personality, Lent beckons us to the virtues of introversion. Today’s first reading has the prophet Joel telling us, “Return to me with all your heart.” Joel’s words do not involve only individuals but extend to the community as a summons addressed to all.

Unfortunately, a pervasive and characteristic weakness within contemporary American culture is that we don’t want to thoughtfully examine and resolve problems. Americans are an extroverted culture who like to shoot from the hip based on gut feelings rather than engage in serious contemplation. We don’t do much looking within ourselves, like mediation or research. We tend to shoot from the hip, often relying on gut feeling and eschewing investigation and careful thought.

Lent, however, is a time for all of us to look inward at attitudes towards other countries, towards people who are different from we are, and our picture of our neighbors. Lent is a time to bring some reality and some humility into our lives, and not to brag about it. Lent calls us to stop the business of our lives and take the time to look within ourselves.

A person is forged in the interior, in good or bad thoughts, in good or evil decisions, in just or unjust behavior, in truthful or deceptive words. Jesus came into the world to change humankind from within so that our works are a true expression of the heart of Jesus.

Lent invites us to call a time-out in the game of our lives to rest and reflect on such questions as:

“Who am I?”

“What should I be?”

“What is the purpose of my life?”

“What should the purpose of my life be?”

“Where am I going?”

“Where should I be going?”

The answers to those questions will be different for everyone. God made us all unique beings. God did not stamp us out of a too-and-die set in a factory. Human persons are not mass-manufactured fungible products, one the same as the other. The lack of a one-size-fits-all response to these questions calls for a renewed focus by each person on who they are as individuals and the status of their particular lives rather than relying on social cues for validation from one’s reference groups like family, church, political party, or school.

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 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. 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.

God made each of us in God’s image so that we might be joined with God’s essence, which can be found in all of creation in the magnificence of the oceans to the canyons and deserts to the extraordinary and infinite array of God’s glorious universe.  These upcoming forty days are a time to repent, to reflect, and to turn back to the Gospel to set us on a path to become part of God and become one with God.