Wednesday, March 5, 2014

March 5, 2014: Ash Wednesday

Recently, we had a funeral for a mentally challenged parishioner. She was only 44 when she died, but she had the intellect and motor skills of a 2-year old. She spent most of her life sitting in a wheel chair. In the Eulogy, her brother called her sinless, perfect, an angel, and a saint. All she knew was how to smile, to laugh, and to dance. He said she taught the rest of the world how to be joyful in the midst of suffering. To an unsullied soul like her’s, what does Ash Wednesday and Lent mean? What would be the reason for her to pray, fast, and give alms? Her brother may argue that she was already a saint, that she didn’t need Lent. This brings to question, why do we need Ash Wednesday and Lent?

What keeps you from smiling and from feeling joyful like that parishioner? Is it a pain, a sorrow, or an anxiety?  Our Lenten journey is a process of growth and, as such, presumes movement from one state of being to another state. For example, some of us may find ourselves troubled and anxious at the beginning of Lent as a result of a life choice, unanswered question, or grief after a loss. At the end of Lent, we may expect a sense of conversion, a sense of peace, or perhaps simply understanding and acceptance.

In the First Reading, we hear Our Lord call  to us, “Return to Me with your whole heart with fasting, and weeping, and mourning.” All of us have to admit that, in one way or another, we have turned away from him since last Lent. Perhaps we have not been faithful in our attendance at Mass or to daily prayer. Maybe we have not been kind to our family or friends, or we have rejected assisting the poor. Perhaps we have been struggling with impure thoughts or actions. Our Lord personally shows us how to return to the Heavenly Father--to follow Jesus  to the desert, to Jerusalem, and to Calvary. It will be a path of rejection, self-denial, and self-control. It will be more challenging than just giving up our sodas, sweets, and cursing.

I still remember the day when my class at the seminary received a tour of the Lake Lawn Metairie funeral facility. The tour included the embalming room and the crematorium.  We were shown a box about the size of a shoe box where one person’s ashes were contained. What a sobering reminder…. "Remember, you are dust, and unto dust you shall return." It was also a reminder to me that we cannot cling to things of this earth. Nothing that we think is valuable while we are alive goes with us into the next life. Fr. Donald Blanchard has a saying, “I’ve never seen a hearse with a U-Haul behind it!”

What attitudes do we already have about Lent and its purpose?  We so easily fall into the notion that Lent is some teeth-gritting, miserable discipline to be endured for the days of Lent and then abandoned immediately on Easter morning. Lent is, rather, for particular attention to an aspect of ourselves that we would like to see changed--preferably a change that would endure. The Church offers us a special season to reflect lovingly on the trials of Jesus’ life so that we will feel his companionship in our efforts to become more like him. Whatever we practice during Lent is to be aimed at a permanent change.  It’s purpose is not merely “sticking it out” but to become more Christ-like. Let us take these forty days of Lent to embrace the abundance of gifts that God has given to us and return to God with our whole hearts – hearts that truly desire reconciliation with God so that intimacy with Him, once again, may be restored.