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Ash Wednesday

February 6, 2008

Blessed Ash Wednesday!

Here’s the link to Pope Benedict’s message for this season:

Lord, protect us in our struggle against evil.
As we begin the discipline of Lent,
make this day holy by our self-denial.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son,
Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen
(Opening Prayer for Ash Wednesday Mass)

Joel 2: 12-18 (God is merciful when we repent)
Psalm 51:3-17 “Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned”
2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2 (We beg you:  be reconciled to God!)
+Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18 (Our prayer, fasting and almsgiving are to be done
in a spirit of conversion, not for show)

When Jesus rose from the waters of Baptism, the Spirit drove Him into the desert for forty days of fasting and spiritual battle in preparation for His public ministry (Mark 1:12).  Today this same Spirit drives us to join our Master in the wasteland as we prepare for the renewal of our Baptismal vows at Easter.  We too have a public ministry by virtue of our Baptism and Confirmation, a ministry which must be regularly renewed by a deepened growth in holiness through the power of the Holy Spirit. We cannot give what we do not have.

Today’s readings are God’s directions for our wilderness retreat.  We set aside our preoccupation with the demands of daily life.  “Gather the people, notify the congregation, assemble the elders, gather the children and the infants at the breast; let the bridegroom quit his room, and the bride her chamber” (Joel 2:16).  We turn to our gracious and merciful God with a profound “rending of the heart”, opening our hearts before His searching gaze that He might cleanse them through the sufferings of Christ.

As creatures, we have limits which we must freely recognize and respect with trust.  How have we let our trust in God die in our hearts?  How have we rejected our limits, scorning God and acting against our own good?  How have we abused our freedom?  How have we preferred ourselves to God, trying to be like God, but without God?   (see the _Catechism of the Catholic Church_, paragraphs 396-398)

These are the hallmarks of Original Sin, and the pattern that sin has followed ever since.  In equipping us to do battle against this foolish rebellion, Jesus models and proclaims three powerful remedies: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.  Each of these three is specifically designed to deepen our trust in God, to strengthen our relationship with Him, freeing us to embrace our creaturely limits as our claim on God’s tenderness, rather than feeling threatened or demeaned by them.

Prayer is our declaration of dependence.  It puts us directly in touch with the God Who loves us, provides for us, corrects us and guides us. It builds our relationship with Him directly, through interpersonal communication.

Fasting demonstrates our limitations.  Our dependence on food points us to our even deeper dependence on God: “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every Word which comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3).  Fasting also leads to empathy for the poor, who fast from necessity rather than by choice.  It leads very naturally to almsgiving to alleviate the suffering we now share with them.

Almsgiving itself is another form of trust in action.  In giving alms, we overcome the insecurity that says we never have enough, the insecurity that makes an idol out of material things, depending on them rather than on God for our salvation.  Almsgiving is allowing God to provide for others through us, trusting that He will not neglect our
needs in the process.

When we apply these remedies in humility and love, God works through them to “restore the years the locusts have eaten” (Joel 2:25), to give us again the joy of His salvation (Psalm 51:14).

May God bless our Lenten prayer, fasting and almsgiving with joy.

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