Wednesday, February 06, 2008

An Offering of Ashes

As many of you know, few (if any) days of the calendar get larger Mass attendance than this... even though it isn't obligatory.

And unusually early though it might be, it's almost too easy to simply go through the motions of another Ash Wednesday, another Lent, thinking in the process that, having done it for years before, we've "got it down."

If anything, a key message of this season remains a heightened awareness of how much ahead there is to do, how great our potential is to do better, to be better, to do more... and not just 'til Easter, and not just in the same way we did last Lent.

The story of this day is one of the more counter-cultural ones out there. The crux of Ash Wednesday is one that fascinates, and rightfully so: in a world -- and, indeed, in a church -- too often obsessed with appearances, with shirking blame and maintaining an image of perfection (sometimes at any cost), all that gets turned inside out: I'm far from perfect. I don't have all the answers. I can't go it alone. What I do matters beyond myself. I can be a better person than who I am right now.

Think of yourself as a construction site. You're a bit dusted up today, or you likely will be in a couple hours. No building rises or stands on its own, and the dust of putting one up didn't just magically appear -- like life, building is invariably a messy process if you're doing it right.

Along these lines, a work-site without dust is no accomplishment; no meaningful work would be getting done there, whether it's the foundations not being adequately driven in, the ground not being sufficiently cleared, maybe both.

A work-site isn't something to behold at mid-project... but the further along it gets, the more specific its work becomes, and the more the dust clears. And then, seemingly all of a sudden, what'd been a mess at the outset is transformed into something beautiful, useful, solid and lasting.

These days can easily become nothing more than a longing for whatever we've given up. But they're meant to be more than that -- and the more dust we kick up in the process, the better the finished product will be.

Bottom line: for yourself and those around you, let God build a better you this Lent.

And in the field, a couple more thoughts....

From Washington, Fr Milt Jordan:
Today we begin the journey of Lent. It is the journey into prayer that brings us to face who we are despite all the veneer we may use to cover over ourselves.

This is the journey that invites each adult to retun to a genuine relationship with Jesus. The challenge for contemporary Catholics is to make certain that the fact-paced America does not infect our hearts and draw us away from the daily dialog we need with God. If we don't allow our hearts and quiet to meld together, where can we make room for the intimacy with God?

Don't parents often remark to children that hanging around with characters whose behavior or way of life is not good, not positive, aren't they saying that good people can make a difference in one's life? Lent is a time when we give special attention to our relationship with the Lord.

In this Lenten season, we use the prayer and fasting and almsgiving underpinings of the season not for themselves. These are molders for us. These Lenten practices are meant to have an impact on our lives.

In just a few weeks we have taken the journey from the difficult experiences of an animal shelter for a young baby to the foot of a painful cross for a preacher of God's will. During these days of looking up end up giving us something immediately in front of us --- the glories of resurrection.

May your days of Lent be an experience of God's love, his peace for you because these forty days opened up for you an ever clearer vision of who you are.

May Jesus Christ walk with you during these forty days. And may the cross of ashes on your forehead be a sign, an emblem to each other and to those of other faiths that these are sacred days for us. Let these ashes be significant in your life. May they be a reminder of what you have undertaken by asking for the ashes to be put on your forehead.
And from Toronto, Salt + Light's Fr Tom Rosica CSB:
Why are there forty days in Lent? It took forty days for sinfulness to drown in the flood before a new creation could inherit the earth. It took forty years for the generation of slaves to die before the freeborn could enter the promised land. For forty days Moses, Elijah and Jesus fasted and prayed to prepare themselves for a life’s work.

Lent invites us to turn from our own selves, from our sin, to come together in community. Self-denial is the way we express our repentance. Self-denial is threefold, advises Matthew’s gospel. We pray: “Go to your room, close your door, and pray to your Father in private.” We fast: “No one must see you are fasting but your Father.” We give alms: “Keep your deeds of mercy secret, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” Through the Lenten exercise of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we spring-clean our lives, sharpen our senses, put tomorrow in its place and treasure the day at hand.

One of the three Lenten practices open to the most misinterpretation today is that of fasting. Fasting has become an ambiguous practice. In antiquity, only religious fasting was known; today, political and social fasting exists (hunger strikes), health and ideological fasting (vegetarians), pathological fasting (anorexia), aesthetic fasting (the cult of the body-believing that thinner is better). There is, above all, a fast imposed by necessity: that of millions of human beings who lack the indispensable minimum and die of hunger.

These fasts in themselves have nothing to do with religious or aesthetic reasons. In aesthetic fasting at times one can even “mortify” the vice of gluttony only to obey another capital vice, that of pride or vanity. Fasting, in itself, is something good and advisable; it translates some fundamental religious attitudes: reverence before God, acknowledgment of one’s sins, resistance to the desires of the flesh, concern for and solidarity with the poor. … As with all human things, however, it can fall into “presumption of the flesh.” Remember the words of the Pharisee in the temple: “I fast twice a week” (Luke 18:12).

Lent is a time for us to discover the reasons for the pious practices, disciplines and devotions of our Catholic Christian tradition. What have we done with the important Lenten practice of fasting? If Jesus were here to speak to disciples of today, what would he stress most? We regard as more important the need to “share bread with the hungry and clothe the naked”; we are in fact ashamed to call ours a “fast,” when what would be for us the height of austerity – to be on bread and water – for millions of people would already be an extraordinary luxury, especially if it is fresh bread and clean water.

Fasting helps us not to be reduced to pure “consumers”; it helps us to acquire the precious “fruit of the Spirit,” which is “self-control,” it predisposes us to the encounter with God. We must empty ourselves in order to be filled by God. Fasting creates authentic solidarity with millions of hungry people throughout the world. But we must not forget that there are alternative forms of fasting and abstinence from food. We can practice fasting from smoking and drinking. This not only benefits the soul but also the body. There is fasting from violent and sexual pictures that television, movies, magazines and Internet bombard us with daily as they distort human dignity. There is the fasting from condemning and dismissing others- a practice so prevalent in today’s Church.

“For now is the acceptable time! Now is the day of salvation!” We need Lent to help us recognize that our identity and mission are rooted in Jesus’ dying and rising. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the pillars of the Lenten journey for Christians. Lent is a time to fast from certain things but also a time to feast on others. Fast from discontent, anger, bitterness, self-concern, discouragement, laziness, suspicion, guilt. Feast on gratitude, patience, forgiveness, compassion for others, hope, commitment, truth, and the mercy of God. Lent is just such a time of fasting and feasting!