February 16, 2007

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Grace of Lenten practices can lead us to surrender to God

It is hard to believe that Ash Wednesday and Lent are at our doorstep.

It is time to start thinking about how we might open our hearts for the special graces of those 40 days.

We might begin with a meditation on the meaning of Ash Wednesday. I am always edified by the numbers of folks who are instinctively drawn to that rather austere day in the calendar year.

One could say that everything about the liturgy of Ash Wednesday comes into focus around one theme: Remember who you are.

And that admonition suggests some questions. Where did I come from? Where do I want to go? Who am I living for? What am I living for? Is God in the picture? Does some other idol, some other god preoccupy and drive my heart?

Perhaps to keep us honest, the Church confronts us with gritty ashes to help us remember that in the end, our bodies, and much of what we spend ourselves for, will come to that—ashes. Especially when we are younger, we may be a bit incredulous, a bit unimpressed by this reminder, yet we can’t dismiss the truth of ashes. The liturgy reminds us that we are dust and unto dust we shall return.

There is another meaning we can ascribe to the use of ashes. It begins with their origin: The ashes used to sign us are created by burning the leftover palms from last Palm Sunday. Those palms symbolize the empty glory given to our Lord Jesus Christ upon his entry into Jerusalem when just days later he would be crucified outside the city.

But we don’t stop there. The symbolic signing with ashes is a timely reminder that there is much more to this life and the next than meets the eye. It is only if we are living only for self, for “me first,” that everything turns to ashes.

Someone once said self-preoccupation is an animal instinct. The fullness of our humanity is developed in the adventure of self-surrender, not self-preoccupation. Jesus challenges us to live, that is, to give our life for others.

Over and over again, Christ’s teachings in the Gospels remind us that there is so much more we can be and do. Pursuit of self turns to ashes. Christ’s life of love leads to freedom and peace both now and in that kingdom where every tear shall be wiped away.

But who doesn’t sin? Who doesn’t fail in the challenge to move beyond self-will and self-preoccupation? And so, in the holy season of Lent, we are called to repent for our sins, to do penance and be reconciled. We are called once more to a conversion of heart and to return to the Gospel.

Based on wisdom of the ages, the Church calls us to do something special to help us turn away from sin and return to the Gospel way of life. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the ways of purification.

I encourage all of us to pray a little more, to do some voluntary fasting and to do some extra good deeds. I encourage us to offer our Lenten good works for vocations for the priesthood and consecrated religious life in our archdiocese.

I also recommend another special practice. I find it meaningful to offer the daily prayer, fasting and good works as an unspoken gift for a particular person on that day. It seems to me that it makes something even more creative of the practices of Lent.

Patient time spent in prayer, the ache of fasting and the trouble of doing extra good works might also help us become more compassionate with the poor, the oppressed and those who suffer great pain without choice. The penance of Lent can lead us to stand with our suffering sisters and brothers.

More importantly, prayer and fasting can lead us to hunger for the Bread of Life. These 40 days provide an opportunity to attend Mass more frequently. I guarantee that an occasional quiet half-hour or hour before the Blessed Sacrament will bring fruitful blessings.

Most especially, I encourage us to pray with a simple and central question: Do I take God seriously in my life? Do I really believe God makes a difference in my life? Does it show in the way I live?

Ashes are not magic. They are a reminder of what counts in life and in death. In that sense, they can help lead us to God. The grace of Lenten practices can lead us to surrender to God: the key to interior peace and freedom.

Let’s pray for that grace. By our prayer, fasting and good deeds, let’s open our hearts to receive the grace of surrender. †

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