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Ash Wednesday

March 1, 2006

Blessed Lent :)!

Today’s readings:
Joel 2: 12-18 (return to God whole-heartedly)
Psalm 51:3-17 “Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned”
2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2 (be reconciled to God–Now!)
+Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18 (don’t do your good works for show)

This season has taken on a whole new significance for me this year. As we host RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation) for three men and women who are preparing to enter into full communion in the Catholic Church and another who will be Confirmed, I’m reminded that Lent was originally designed for them. The sacrifices they are making just to participate in RCIA, and their final, intensive preparation for the Easter Sacraments, inspire us to examine our own lives. Am I living up to my own Baptismal promises? Does my faith mean as much to me as it does to these candidates? Would I be willing to go through the sacrifices they’re making if I wasn’t Catholic already? We get to catch a spark of faith from them and to remember that no matter how much we’ve grown, there’s always more. Even what we have learned needs to be dusted off and applied more fully. Fortunately, we have plenty of time. We join our candidates for forty days of Purification and Enlightenment in preparation for our own renewal of the Baptismal vows that bind us to God for all eternity.

We join Noah in the ark, as forty days and forty nights of rain wash away the corruption from our lives (Genesis 9:12). We join Moses for forty days on the mountain, receiving God’s handbook of holiness (Deuteronomy 9:9-18). We join the Israelite spies, exploring the wonders of the Promised Land for forty days in anticipation of making our home there (Numbers 13:26). We join rebellious Israel, wandering in the desert for forty years in reparation for their lack of faith (Numbers 14:33). We join Elijah, who walked, fasting, forty days and forty nights to meet the One who revealed His Presence in a still small voice (I Kings 19:8). We join God Himself, in the Person of Jesus, in the wilderness (Matthew 4). There we learn from His example how to win the only battle worth fighting. We learn to conquer the only thing that can do us lasting harm. We learn to vanquish sin.

Our readings are the opening instructions for this retreat, meant to help us get the most out of it. We can’t stop at superficiality. “Rend your hearts, not your garments” (Joel 2:13). We can’t stop at giving up chocolate or pizza or our favorite TV program. We also need to bare our hearts before the Divine Physician so He can heal them. We need to bring Him the insecurities and fears that feed our passion to be in control, to always be right, to try take things out of His hands. We need to let Him help us make peace with our creaturehood; our weakness and dependence on Him.

And we’re in this together. “Gather the people, notify the congregation; assemble the elders, gather the children” (Joel 2:16). We’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). We all need to repent, and we can make it easier on each other if we all do it together. Just as sin can cause scandal and make it easier for others to sin, repentance and spiritual growth can be contagious too.

However, in our Gospel, Jesus warns us that when we give alms, pray and/or fast, we shouldn’t do it to make ourselves look good (see Matthew 6:2, 5 & 16). That’s the superficial method, which is full of the spiritual disease of pride. As we share this journey of repentance, we need to do it in humility. That doesn’t mean beating ourselves up for our mistakes or trying to look worse than we are. It just means acknowledging our weakness, correcting our mistakes, and backing out of the dead end so we can get somewhere.

It’s significant that Jesus focuses on prayer (humbly acknowledging our dependence on God), fasting (developing the ability to say “no” to our desires) and almsgiving (love that lays down its life for one in need) today, the three main forms of sacrifice recommended by Mother Church for our retreat. We tend to think of these as negatives, as sacrifices. God gives them to us as positives, as gifts, as virtues that cancel out the three main enemies of our spiritual life. The only thing that can ultimately destroy us is sin. Nothing else can keep us out of heaven, can deprive us of our God-given destiny. But sin can kill us eternally. And the three main forms of sin’s attack are the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life (John 2:16).

These are the three forms of temptation Jesus fought in the wilderness for us, to model for us what we need to do when our worst enemy, temptation, strikes (Matthew 4).

He fought the lust of the flesh (gluttony) when the devil tempted Him to turn bread into stones. Jesus chose to fast instead.

He fought the lust of the eyes (covetousness) when the devil enticed Him to gain all the kingdoms of the world by giving top priority to something other than God. Jesus chose instead to gain those kingdoms by giving up His life on the Cross for us, the ultimate in almsgiving.

He fought the pride of life (false glory) when the devil tempted Him to force God to save Him by throwing Himself off the pinnacle of the temple. Jesus chose instead to submit Himself to God, which is the heart of prayer.

May we learn from our Teacher to ward off the enemies of our souls through prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

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