"Now, now," says the LORD, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.
Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil.
Who knows whether he will not turn and repent, and leave a blessing behind him, a cereal offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God?
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber.
Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep and say,"Spare your people, O LORD, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, 'Where is their God?'"
Then the LORD became jealous for his land, and had pity on his people.
We are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says, "At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you." See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!
Jesus said to his disciples, "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
As we receive the ashes on our foreheads, we want to live Lent as a time of cleansing and holy desire, helped by some Gospel practices: prayer, fasting and alms-giving. We begin this season by receiving ashes on our foreheads, often in the form of a cross. The forty days of Lent echo the time Jesus spent in the desert before his public ministry. Lent is meant to help us to a more effective Christian lifestyle.
The Christian life, said St Augustine, "is an exercise of holy desire." It does not ask that we suppress our normal desires, but to raise and purify them. Our desires are too small if our ultimate values are those of this world; for God wants us to have so much more, no less than his very Self. During Lent we tune in to higher desires, to deep-down longing for God. And Jesus shows us the way of prayer, fasting and alms-giving, the classic Lenten practices. Of these, prayer has first place. Our eternity will be our relationship with the living God, a relationship that begins in this life, or it does not begin at all. Our most shared prayer is during the Mass, the loving sacrifice of Christ which opens heaven to us. Prayer is the daily practice of our friendship with God, and it opens the way to eternal life.
Fasting is more tricky for us today and is perhaps practice more by Muslims than by Catholics. But while we appreciate our food and the conviviality that often accompanies a good meal, we should also find a place for fasting. The main goal of Lenten fasting is not a well-toned body to be proud of. Some saints were quite corpulent, others were virtual skeletons, but they had this in common: they practiced voluntary self-denial, to sharpen their appetite for God. All of us resonate in some way to the ideal of alms-giving as compassionate sharing. Lent is good time to rid ourselves of some clutter in our life. With a bit more vision, could we perhaps do more to serve the needy, not to be praised as generous, but to imitate God's generosity to us?
Augustine sees cleansing as preparing us to practice holy desire, which is possible only to the extent that we free ourselves from infatuation with this world. It is like filling an empty container. "God means to fill us with what is good—so cast out what is bad! If God wishes to fill us with honey and we are full of sour wine, where is the honey to go? The vessel must first be emptied and cleansed."
Ash Wednesday could hardly make more tangible the transience of things and our own mortality. We start Lent humbly, close to the ground, close to our earthiness: "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return." But the ashes are not just to commemorate the transience of creation. These ashes used this Wednesday are the residue of the palms of last year's Passion-Sunday. Jesus died and was buried in a tomb, the place of decay and the place of dust. Yet he rose from the dead to new life. Our ultimate destiny is not dust and ashes but a sharing in the Lord's risen life, becoming conformed to the image of Christ. As we journey towards that destiny we hear the call to grow more fully into the image of God's Son, which is a call to turn away from sin, to repent. The ashes are a sign of our desire to do just that. The traditional practices of Lent that we heard about in the gospel put before us the essentials for growth into the image of God's Son, a greater love of God (prayer), a more generous love of neighbour (alms giving), and a truer love of ourselves (fasting). We recommit ourselves on Ash Wednesday to build our lives on those three loves, so that we may more fully become all that God is calling us to be. [MH]
The more active women in a certain parish once decided that their Lenten project should be something to benefit the whole parish. They met several time to discuss what each of them thought would be most beneficial project they could sponsor. One woman suggested they have a children's Easter fashion show. She knew her daughter would love to do something like that. Another woman suggested a "house walk" where some of the owners of the newest and biggest houses in the community could let the rest of the community see how they decorated their houses for Easter.
Several similar ideas were put forth but support for each idea was rather evenly split. Finally, one woman who had been silent during the whole discussion suggested that a Lenten project that would benefit the entire parish might best be one in which everyone in the parish could participate as they lived out the season of preparation for Easter. The other women were a bit surprised at her suggestion. No one had stopped to think "outside the box" of spring fashion shows and hose walks. As they thought about it and discussed what they might do, they came to realize that they had gotten caught up in ideas that didn't really reflect the spirit of Easter. This shared insight helped them focus on ways in which their project would be one that would help the whole community appreciate the spirit of resurrection.