By: Fr. James Gross
“Return to me with your whole heart, says the Lord.” The prophet Joel doesn’t dare say, “Return to us, O God,” as though God had left us behind. We are the ones who become unreliable and forgetful of God, and not the other way around. Indeed, the season of Lent is about returning to God, and in so doing we rediscover what kinds of people we are meant to become.
Each year we choose to observe a 40-day season of heightened acts of penance and prayer. Why do we do this? It would certainly be easier to stick with our routines and to do what’s familiar, wouldn’t it? But the thing about routines is that they often turn into ruts. Being stuck in a rut denies the effect divine grace should have in our lives. Every year, without fail, once Ash Wednesday comes along, I identify routines—let’s call them what they are, ruts—in my own life that I’m not proud of, things that weigh me down. And every year this celebration has new meaning for me, and gives me a needed push to do something positive.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not reducing the observance of Lent to some self-improvement program. The benefits of a “good Lent” run far deeper than that, including one’s sense of purpose and spirituality. Pointing out specific things I’m doing or not doing is only part of the puzzle. Those things may not be blatantly sinful, but the question is: do they result in my becoming more negligent of God, or less able to love Him and my neighbor fully? When I consider the sacrifices I make during Lent, I ask myself: is this something vain, or will it actually help me focus on my faith and practice it better? God has already turned toward me and has never turned away. How will I return to Him?
Historically, Lent came about in large part because of the many converts who joined the church every year. The custom, as it is now, was for them to enter into a more intense period of preparation before being received into full communion at Easter, and to publicly appeal for the support of their brothers and sisters already in the fold. Rather than to stand by passively, the faithful eventually took upon themselves similar acts of penance, uniting themselves actively to the parish’s catechumens. One of the main reasons for a 40-day long season of Lent was to imitate the 40 days Jesus spent in prayer in the desert to prepare for his ministry, which we’ll hear about this weekend, or also the 40-day retreat Moses spent atop Mt. Sinai as God revealed to him the instructions of His law for Israel. The Church has seen the wisdom of annually calling upon God’s mercy and for renewal in the Holy Spirit.
On Ash Wednesday we hear this Gospel reading about the merits of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. Three times Jesus says that “our Father who sees what is secret” will repay us. At first glance his words contradict the practice of putting ashes on our foreheads. In fact, years ago I met a young woman who bragged about the large cross-shaped smear on her head and exuberantly said, “I got GOOD ashes this year!”
I’m only being mildly critical of her comment. Obviously no one in the seminary told us that the application of ashes has to measure so long by so wide in order to count. What we’re doing today has a two-fold significance. The words “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” call to mind our own mortality. This awareness of death shows us what in our lives we need to hold on to and what we need to let go of. Secondly, the ashes are an exterior sign of the desire of our hearts. The smoldering remains of palm branches do not magically make us more pious and charitable. The cross applied to our foreheads commits us to stir that charity into flame and not bury it. The sign of ashes is a challenge to make every part of our lives a fitting image of the life of Christ—both what we think and what we do.
Lastly, all the language of today’s readings ties us to the present moment. I’d contend that the most important word in this Gospel is when. “When you give alms, when you fast,” etc. is far different than saying “if.” When I started Theology, the graduate school version of seminary, I was struck by how often people were saying “When you become a priest.” The “if” was slipping away; a transition had taken place.
How do we respond to the present moment and live in the spirit of “when?” Don’t wish to return to God someday: do it today! Don’t wait around for the right time: now is the acceptable time! Delaying the action may sound rational but is really harmful. Excuses are our enemies. The sooner we get serious about working with God’s grace, the easier it will be to make sacrifices and stick with them. May our prayer today propel us forward, so that God will dispose us to give Him greater glory.