Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ash Wednesday
Planning the Pilgrimage

Readings: Joel l 2:12-18; Psalm 51:3-4, 5-6ab, 12-13, 14 and 17; 2 Corinthians 5:20—6:2; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

Recently I had a conversation with someone who’s planning a group-pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It was interesting to hear about how carefully he was seeing to every detail of the trip. In particular he had decided to limit the number of places they were to visit so that they didn’t have to rush from place to place but could linger a little longer at each, spending more time in prayer and reflection. After all, it was a pilgrimage. Also, the places he chose to include on the itinerary followed the outline of the gospel stories of the life of Jesus, from the Annunciation to the Resurrection. After all, it was a pilgrimage. And careful thought was also given to where the group could celebrate Mass each day. Why? You guessed it. It was, after all, a pilgrimage.

Listening to him, I was quite struck by how this pilgrimage planner was continually and carefully keeping the purpose of the trip in view. And we know how important it is to do this don’t we? Haven’t we experienced planning a much-needed vacation for ourselves – hoping to rest and relax and to spend some quality time with our loved ones – but, upon returning from the trip, finding ourselves even more tired and more estranged from our loved ones than before we left?

In a sense, we are also embarking on a trip today. Today we begin our Lenten journey. During these days, we will be encouraged to spend more time especially in prayer, fasting and almsgiving. These will be some of the places on our spiritual itinerary during these days. And yet, like going on vacation, it is possible to go through the external motions of these activities but lose sight of their real purpose. It is possible to embark on this trip and then return from it feeling more tired than when we started.

Which is why, at the start of our Lenten pilgrimage, the Church, in her wisdom, carefully places before us the aim of all we are about to do. In particular, she offers us today the Word of God as a lamp for our steps and a light for our path (see Psalm 119:105).

The aim of this journey, the significance of this time, is highlighted by St. Paul in the second reading. Now is the favourable time, this is the day of salvation. This is the time for us to be reconciled to God. This is a privileged time for us to recognize and to acknowledge the areas of darkness in our own hearts, much like the psalmist does today: my offences truly I know them; my sin is always before me – a time for us to allow the light of God’s Word to illumine our darkness, to wash us from our guilt and to give us again the joy of God’s help.

This is the aim that we will have to keep continually before us even as we journey through these forty days. This is the purpose that we have to consider in choosing the places we will visit, the kinds of prayer, fasting and almsgiving we will undertake. And in making our choices it is probably less important what we do, than why we do it. Our activities will be helpful only in so far as they help us to turn more wholeheartedly to the Lord. As we heard in the first reading: Let your hearts be broken not your garments torn, turn to the Lord your God again. For, as Jesus shows us in the gospel today, it is possible to do all the right things but for all the wrong reasons.

Sisters and brothers as we begin our Lenten expedition today, we pray that God's Word may truly continue to light up the way before us, keeping us on the right track. After all, it is a pilgrimage, isn't it?

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