Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Ash Wednesday
Through the Doorway

Readings: Joel 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

Some time ago, I took a series of psychological tests. In one of these tests I was presented with several pictures in black and white and asked to write a short story about each of them. Today I’m reminded especially of one of those pictures. See if you can imagine it as I describe it to you. The whole background of the picture is dark, except for what looks like a doorway that is lit. And, entering through this doorway is the figure of a person, someone who looks to be passing out of the darkness and into the light. As we begin our great season of Lent with this celebration of Ash Wednesday, I wonder if this same picture might not help us to write a story about the meaning of our celebration. As you know, most stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. Perhaps our Lenten story will be the same.

Our story begins with our presence here today. We have come here for Mass and, shortly, we will have ashes imposed on our foreheads. This is how Lent begins. It begins with God’s people performing certain right actions. These actions include the three traditional practices that we heard Jesus talk about in the gospel: prayer and fasting and almsgiving. And, as we know, there are different ways of performing these actions. We can, for example, pray in many different ways: with the rosary or with scripture, in song or in silence, accompanied or alone. There is also a wide variety of ways in which to fast and to give alms. We can curb our appetites for food or for entertainment, just as we can give of our money or our time and attention. The important thing is that we do these actions in ways that enable us to renew our relationships to God, to ourselves and to one another.

Which brings us to the middle of our Lenten story. As Jesus reminds us in the gospel today, it is possible to do all the right actions for all the wrong reasons. Having begun our Lenten story with right actions, we need now to move on to an appropriate middle. Right actions must be motivated by the right intention. As we heard in the first reading: rend your hearts and not your garments… In order for our Lenten discipline to bear the desired fruit, we need to have broken hearts. And the readings also tell us how. Not only do they remind us of our deep need for God – why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’ – but they also convict us of our sinfulness – against you only have I sinned… And, most importantly, they remind us too of the full extent of God’s mercy toward us, his wayward children: for our sake (God) made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him…

Moved by these considerations of God’s love in the face of our own sinfulness, we hope that our prayer and fasting and almsgiving will help us write a fitting ending to our story. We hope that, motivated by the right intention, our right actions will ultimately lead us to the right destination. As our opening prayer expressed it so well, we are hoping that God will bestow sight to the darkness of sinful eyes so that, with hearts broken by contrition, we can see more clearly the way to the place we wish to go. What is this destination? What is this happy ending? We heard it described in the second reading, in Paul’s words of exhortation: we implore you… to be reconciled with God… For now is the day of salvation.

Right actions, the right motivation and the right destination: collectively, might these not provide us with a possible format for writing our own Lenten story? In addition, there is yet another consideration that might help us. Recalling the picture with which we began, perhaps we might see that Lent is not just a question of our walking out of darkness and into the light, but also of our opening the doors of our hearts and our lives, so that the God of Light might enter and illumine our darkness. Isn’t this the reason why God made him to be sin who did not know sin?

How do you intend to write your Lenten story today?

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