Rend your hearts, not
your garments, and return to the Lord, your God. Joel
Each year you give us this
joyful season when we prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery with mind
and heart renewed. - Preface for Lent I
This is a wonderful day. This day opens the liturgical season
of Lent. On this day in the Catholic tradition, we have a cross of
ashes placed on our foreheads, we refrain from eating very much and we
don't eat meat. The Opening Prayer of the liturgy has a solemn and
pleading tone. We turn to God and ask for the grace we need for the
very special days ahead. It will be a very special interaction between
God's grace, our choices, and God's grace.
All of this symbolism and ritual, and our beginning a change of our normal patterns, helps us mark how important the days ahead are for us. All religious experience is prepared for. We say today that we want, we deeply desire, that the six weeks of Lent will be a time of religious experience for us.
We are preparing to "rend our hearts." This is a time to let our heart be opened - opened to examine what is there that needs forgiveness and healing, and opened to new graces, new generosity, new compassion. We want to "turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel."
We want to reflect on the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus for us. We want it to become personal. Jesus was broken and given for me. My own sins - what I have done and what I have failed to do - have been forgiven. We want to feel that gratitude and let it transform how we feel about the sin of others. Experiencing our own poverty, we want to be renewed in a dedication to notice, have compassion for, and stand in solidarity with the poor of our world.
All of this "activity" is very counter-cultural. Wearing that cross of ashes says that I am not afraid to walk around in the world, perhaps for only an hour, with a sign that says I know my life on this earth is not "all there is." It says that I believe in everlasting life. It says that I know who I am and I want to choose to take advantage of the days ahead.
This "public" aspect of Ash Wednesday can sound contradictory to what Jesus warns about in the gospel: "Be on guard against performing religious acts for people to see." I suspect that what Jesus was warning his listeners about is rarely our problem. I suspect the heart of what Jesus is warning us about is to trust that God know what we are doing and that God will hear our desires. Doing anything religious to gain the approval, affirmation, praise of others is fairly empty and will ultimately twist us in very funny ways, as we all know.
Dear Lord, bless this day by blessing our desires. Help us
to know how deeply you long to enter more deeply into relationship with
us. Help us to fast from, to do without, whatever keeps us self-focused.
Strip us these days from some of the unhealthy patterns that make freedom
difficult. Let there be some taste of emptiness this day, and let
us experience hunger for you, hunger for a new way of life, hunger for
how we might serve others. Let us enter "this joyful season Lent,"
and help us "prepare to celebrate the Paschal Mystery with mind and heart
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