Picture: cc Robert S. Donovan
Sisters and brothers, imagine, for a moment, that you’re at a local supermarket. Doing some last-minute shopping. You’re in a hurry. You want to get what you need, and leave as soon as you can. But you encounter a problem. The shopping cart the store has provided refuses to cooperate. No matter how hard you try to push it in a straight line, it keeps veering off to one side. Threatening to collide into the shelves. Or into other shoppers. And you realise why. One of its four wheels is crooked.
Those of us who have ever had an experience like this will know how annoying it can be. But if this is true of shopping carts with a crooked wheel, what about people with crooked hearts? Yes, it is possible, isn’t it, for people to have a crooked heart? Even Christians like you and me. Speaking for myself, I find that I am, for the most part, obedient to God. I try to arrange my life so that it moves along in the general direction that God wants. But only for the most part. If I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that deep within me, there is something like a crooked wheel. An annoying tendency to resist God’s best intentions for my life. A stubborn desire to go my own way. To veer off-course. And, in the process, to sabotage my own happiness. And the happiness of others.
Which is why I need a day like Ash Wednesday. And a season like Lent. A time for me to allow God to do some maintenance work on the shopping cart of my heart. To straighten the crooked wheel. To speak to me in those tender words from our Mass readings today. Words that call me to repentance. Come back to me with all your heart, fasting, weeping, mourning.’ Let your hearts be broken, not your garments torn. To tell me not to procrastinate any longer. For now is the favourable time; this is the day of salvation.
As a Church, we respond to these words by undertaking the traditional penitential practices of Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Practices aimed at straightening what has become bent. Turning selfish and egotistical hearts back in the direction of love. Love of God. Love of neighbour. Love even of enemies. And I’ll need to tailor these practices to my own particular circumstances and needs. I’ll need to ask what kind of prayer I need to to? From what kind of things do I need to fast? To which groups of people do I need to give alms?
But I also need to be careful. For it is possible to perform these penitential practices in the wrong way. In a harmful way. In a way that simply burdens the shopping cart of my heart with more and more concerns. So that what needs to be straightened, ends up being made more crooked than it was before. And the practices that are aimed at deflating my ego, end up leaving it even more bloated than it was before. Which is why I need to listen carefully to the advice that Jesus offers in the gospel today: Be careful not to parade your good deeds before men to attract their notice; by doing this you will lose all reward from your Father in heaven. I need to be careful about my motivation for undertaking our Lenten discipline. Not to attract attention. But to be transformed. Not to be self-satisfied. But to give of myself in love.
Sisters and brothers, as we enter this great Season of Lent, what must we do to let God straighten the crooked wheels of our hearts today?