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Ash Wednesday

February 17, 2010

Blessed Ash Wednesday!

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)

“Rend your hearts, not your garments” -Joel 2:13

“Be on guard against performing religious acts for people to see.” -Matthew 6:1

The trouble with physical signs is that we’re so good at emptying them of meaning, of doing them just because “it’s the thing to do” or to make ourselves look impressive to other people (or to ourselves!). In Joel’s day, tearing a garment was a sign of distress, of grief. A torn cloak was supposed to signify a broken heart; especially a heart broken with sorrow for sin (repentance), but we see over and over throughout the Scriptures that this and other signs of repentance were being abused. “This people draws near with words only and honors Me with their lips alone, though their hearts are far from Me” (Isaiah 29:13).

It’s all too easy to do the same today. We give up chocolate and go out for lobster on Fridays (in consolation for the meat that we’re not supposed to have) just because “it’s the thing to do” (and because we get to feel proud of ourselves for doing something so hard!) without giving a second thought to the condition of our hearts, or to what God might want for us.

God loves us too much to leave us in our empty rituals, in our self-imposed exile from Him. He’s calling us to heartfelt conversion today: “Now is the acceptable time! Now is the day of salvation!” (II Corinthians 6:2). When we respond with all our hearts, we can be sure that He will not be idle: “The Lord has been zealous for His land, and has spared His people” (Joel 2:18). He saves us from ourselves, is what He does…

So what does it mean to “rend your hearts”? Well, first we have to examine our hearts. Before we even think about what to “give up for Lent”, or what spiritual disciplines to take on, we first need to ask what’s got a hold on us. What threatens to take the place of God in our lives? What are we leaning on, depending on for happiness and security? Is there something (beyond the honest bare necessities) that we feel we can’t live without? Is our generosity limited to what benefits ourselves? Those are the things that need to be restored to their proper place.

Ask God, your guardian angel and your patron saints to shine divine light into your heart so that you can see it as it is and see what God wants it to be. What’s in there that doesn’t belong? What’s missing that should be there? If you’re really brave, ask family members and friends what changes they’d like to see (and see if they’re brave enough to answer!). God speaks through people too.

That’s step one. Step two is to ask God what He wants to do about what He’s shown us and to commit to follow through (also known as a “firm purpose of amendment”). Right about now you should be ready for a trip to the confessional to let God’s Light wash away the darkness and give you grace to keep your resolutions.

If chocolate has become something of an idol, perhaps that is the best thing to give up for forty days–but not as a test of will-power. Let God work in you. He’s just waiting for the opportunity. Don’t rely on your own abilities (they’re all too likely to take over as idols where the chocolate–or whatever you’ve given up–left off!). “When I am weak, then I am strong” (II Corinthians 12:10) because “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13, emphasis added). Make your act of self-denial a prayer, a declaration of dependence on the Almighty: “God, right now my desires are screaming for one of those candy bars, but I choose to love You more than chocolate. Please draw my heart to Yourself. Help me to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’ (Psalm 34:9) and to share that goodness with the people around me.” If your heart is open, you will experience for yourself what St. Gregory the Great meant:

“Bodily pleasures set alight a strong desire when they are not possessed, but one who has them and partakes of them, becomes satiated and tires of them. On the other hand, spiritual pleasures are tiresome when they are not possessed, when they are possessed they cause even greater desire. The one who partakes of them hungers for more and the more one eats, the hungrier one becomes.”

May the rending of our hearts empty us of our own emptiness,
that God may fill us with the love, happiness and fulfillment
for which we were created.

Yours in conversion of heart,

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 18, 2010 10:51 am

    Thank You! This is wonderful help! I am going to try to follow this every day!

    • February 18, 2010 1:11 pm

      Thanks, Phyllis! If you like, you can have the blog send you the new entries as emails. Just click the “sign me up” button on the right-hand side of the page & enter your address. That way you won’t have to rely on your memory to visit the site.

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