February 20, 2009

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Lent reminds us of what is important in life

Next week, we begin the season of Lent with its special graces.

I welcome the opportunity for a renewed conversion of heart. The age-old wisdom of the Catholic Church reminds us that we need this renewal.

The purple vestments and the austerity of the liturgy during the season evoke a certain seriousness while at the same time preparing us for the splendor of the Resurrection.

We begin with Ash Wednesday. I am always impressed by the turnout for this harbinger of Lent.

Everything about the liturgy of Ash Wednesday seems to come into focus around one theme: Remember who you are.

The liturgy tells us: “Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” 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, drive my heart?

It helps to keep us honest that the Church confronts us with gritty ashes. The ceremony of ashes helps us remember that in the end, our bodies—and much of what we spend ourselves for—will come to that, to ashes.

Perhaps we are a bit incredulous, a bit unimpressed by this reminder, especially if we are still young; yet, we can’t dismiss the truth of ashes.

Ashes used for the anointing have another meaning if one considers where they come from. The ashes used for this liturgical ritual are created by burning the palms from last Palm Sunday. Recall that those palms symbolize the empty glory given to our Lord Jesus Christ upon his entry into Jerusalem where just days later they crucified him.

But let’s not stop there. The symbol is a reminder that there is much more to this life and the next than meets the eye. It is only if we are living for self, for “me first,” that everything turns to ashes.

Someone once said self-preoccupation is a brute animal instinct. The fullness of our humanity is developed in the adventure of self-surrender, not self-centeredness.

Jesus challenges us to live fully, to give our life for others. Over and over again, the Gospel reminds us that there is so much more we can be and do. Pursuit of self turns to ashes. Christ’s way of love leads to freedom and peace 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 a special way during Lent, we are called to repent of our sins, to do penance and to be reconciled. We are called once more to a conversion of heart.

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 age-old Lenten practices that lead us to purification.

And so I encourage all of us to pray a little more, to do some voluntary fasting and to do some extra good works of charity.

Let’s do something creative with our fasting, special prayer and charity. I encourage us to offer our Lenten good works for some special intention; for example, for vocations to the priesthood and religious life in our archdiocese. I like to offer the practices of each day of Lent for some particular person. The special daily offering adds an additional meaning to the season.

Even more, alertness in prayer, the ache of fasting and the trouble of doing some extra charity should 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 truly to stand prayerfully with those who suffer. More importantly, prayer and fasting can lead us to a greater hunger for the Bread of Life, for more frequent participation in the Eucharist, and greater eucharistic devotion and adoration.

Most especially, I encourage us to do some serious reflecting about a simple and central question: Do I take God seriously in my life? Do I really believe God makes a difference in my life? And do I make that connection daily?

Finally, I cannot stress too much the importance of going to confession to receive Christ’s healing touch. God’s mercy is his most beautiful quality, and it is for everyone.

Ashes are not magic. They are a reminder of what counts in life. They point us to God.

Our Lenten practices lead us in self-surrender to Jesus, interior peace and freedom.

Let’s pray for the grace of surrender this Lent. Let’s open our hearts to Christ.

After all, he died for us. †

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