2 Cor 5:20-6:2
Mt 6:1-6; 16-18
Lent begins with the ancient custom of the imposition of ashes; a custom that is apparently gaining favor in some Protestant denominations. Thus, today we begin our 40-day procession through a season described as penitential. But lent is more than penitential. It is, or it should be, transformational as well.
The first reading from Joel puts today into context. Joel calls for an assembly. He decrees a fast in the setting of a liturgy. Blow the trumpets. Gather the people. Everyone is invited from the youngest to the eldest. The same is true of the Eucharistic banquet. The young and the very old are invited along with all those in between, if they choose to accept the invitation, if they are appropriately disposed.
Thus we gather in assembly to listen to the word of God. We gather to receive the ashes that simultaneously remind us of our mortality and call us to undergo a change of heart so as to live more closely in accord with the Gospel. We come together to receive the Body and Blood of Christ whose passion death and resurrection we will recall and celebrate at the end of these forty days.
Lent is not just a season of “give ups,” of abstaining from the usual suspects: smoking, chocolate, desert, meat, beer, and so on. It is a time of taking on: taking on time to meditate on the Gospel, taking on time for spiritual reading, making additional time for prayer or adoration. It is a time to heed the advice of St. Jane de Chantal, foundress of the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary, “We cannot always offer God great things but at each instant we can offer little things with great love.” Offering those little things with great love may be a more difficult mortification than giving up desert and beer for the next forty days, if not for life.
The second reading in today’s Office of Readings is a letter from St. Clement, pope, to the Corinthians. It lays out a road map for Lent. “We should be humble in mind, putting aside all arrogance, pride and foolish anger. . . . Recall especially what the Lord Jesus said when he taught gentleness and forbearance. Be merciful, so that you may have mercy shown to you. Forgive, so that you may be forgiven. As you treat others, so you will be treated . . .” Lent is a time to challenge ourselves to be more fully what we want to be but may not know how to become. If that process of becoming involves quitting smoking, so be it. If it involves spending extra time in prayer or contemplation, so be it. Ideally we will move through lent in a combination of penance and prayer, contrition and contemplation.
There are two formulae for the imposition of ashes. The first reminds us of our common mortality: “Remember, thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.”
The second is advice for living: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospels.”
At the beginning of this holy season of Lent, we are called to meditate on the first and to live according to the second.
Fr. Jack, SJ, MD