Scripture Readings: Book of the Prophet Joel 2:12-18; Second Corinthians 5:20-6:2; Gospel According to Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18.
The readings for Mass today set the tone for the entire season of Lent which we now begin. Keep in mind the word “Lent” comes from the same root as our word “lengthen.” Of course, in this season, as the days are getting longer, we are to “lengthen” or “increase” our fervor for the things of God, especially embodied in prayer, fasting and almsgiving. That may seem like hard work, and it can be, but it is supposed to be joyfully undertaken. If we prefer nothing whatever to Christ, then our prayer, fasting and almsgiving are necessarily a joyful endeavor. Why? Because it unites us along the same path that our Lord took, and He invites us on the same way.
Our Eastern Catholic and Orthodox brethren refer to these forty days as the “Lenten Spring.” Springtime implies new life, fresh starts and the earth itself warming beneath our feet. What is there not to like in all of that? I say that because some people, maybe even some monks, might dread the season of Lent, a time of what is often characterized by “giving up.” May the Lord help us to find in this season cause for joyful giving and doing!
The first reading for Mass today, from the Prophet Joel, is an elegant invitation from God for each of us to “return to the Lord.” The Prophet Joel is telling us what we should be doing in this season. The Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians today is concerned with the end or the purpose of Lent, maybe best expressed by the term “reconciliation,” that is, to be made one again with God through receiving God’s forgiveness. Finally the Gospel for Ash Wednesday, from Saint Matthew, tells us how we should live these forty days. Not only by the practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, but also looking at the kind of motivation or moving force that needs to be part of all that we do during Lent, namely, for the love of God and neighbor.
With the arrival of Ash Wednesday, we recognize that “now is the day of salvation,” as Scripture says. Of course, every day is “the day of salvation,” but we humans need to be reminded of that truth over and again, and the annual Liturgical season of Lent offers us a golden opportunity to begin anew, to work harder, to be more disposed, to all that God has in store for those who love Him.
The reception of ashes from the blessed palms of last year’s Palm Sunday, placed on our foreheads today, reminds us of an important ideal, expressed perfectly in the words accompanying the imposition of ashes: “Remember, man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” There is another formula that can be used, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” My preference is the first option, as the one that I know from childhood, and that I use in the distribution of ashes: “Remember, man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.”
These words are an invitation to look at one’s own life in a different way. No need to accumulate; no need to look up how much a U-haul trailer costs to rent as we grow closer to death. No, the point is, we must depend on God’s provident care now and throughout our life, and ultimately at the end of our earthly sojourn. For that care of God we should greatly rejoice.
Holy Lent, which we begin again this day, is a loving invitation from our God to pursue a more intimate relationship with our God, to go forth with a real conversion, to make humble penance for our sins and receive the Church’s Sacrament of Forgiveness. We don’t do any of this to feel good about ourselves or to avoid being thrust into hell, but in order to produce the good fruit the Lord expects of us, so that we live fully the joy of Easter, the Resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To this goal we eagerly take up our Lenten practices in this year of our Lord 2023.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB