Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. During Mass, we will have ash placed on our foreheads by the priest; this action is both a reminder that we are dust and to dust we shall return, and a call for us to repent and believe in the Gospel. In calling us to repentance, Ash Wednesday invites us to examine our priorities; it challenges us to abandon those things which keep us from following Christ more closely and to abandon ourselves more lovingly into his hands. Today’s Gospel gives us three ways of meeting this challenge.
First, in inviting us to give alms, Jesus is asking us to examine our relationship with other people. We are asked to love our neighbour as ourselves, to do what is right by other people. So, Lent is a good opportunity for us to ask ourselves how we express our love for other people. Do you think about other people, putting them before yourselves and seeking what is best for them? Do you think well of people, and only say what is good about them, or do you weigh in with more negative opinions? On a more particular level, do you ‘give alms’ by contributing materially to the work of the Church? Cardinal Hume used to say that people should give an hour’s pay in the offertory collection each week; here, average giving is 19p per head. Do you contribute less to the work of the Church on Sunday than you spend on a pint on Saturday night? If you see someone who is lonely, why not reach out to them? Speak to someone new every day – in doing so, you will help to make the world a better place.
Second, in inviting us to pray, Jesus is asking us to examine our relationship with God – Father, Son & Holy Spirit. Prayer is both public – the celebration of the sacred liturgy, in which the Church offers herself to God the Father in worship – and private, in which we as individual Christians do the same. As Catholics, we are ‘both/and’ people – we need to pray as a body corporate and as individuals. We spend plenty of time on our relationships with others, by meeting up, going to the pub or for a curry, and spending time on Facebook. But how much time do we spend on our relationship with God? Do you know where your Bible is? Is it opened regularly? What about your Missal, prayer book or Catechism of the Catholic Church? If our relationship with God matters, it needs working on, and Lent is the ideal opportunity for us to do this. Think about going to weekday Mass, Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer, making your confession, spending a few minutes each morning and evening in prayer, reading the Scriptures or doing lectio divina; all of these things will help your relationship with God to grow.
Third, in inviting us to fast, Jesus is asking us to examine our relationship with ourselves. We are all made in the image and likeness of God, and we are all temples of the Holy Spirit. But, we can all get dusty with time and Lent is a good opportunity for us to give ourselves a spiritual spring-clean. The custom of ‘giving something up for Lent’ is a valuable one; by going without, we can identify ourselves more closely with the poor of our city, country and world, and ask God to fill the space from which materialism seeks to exclude him. So, think about what you’re going to give up for Lent. Giving up food, alcohol, wine or something else that you like is a good thing. But why not go beyond that? If there is something that is stopping you from being the person whom God calls you to be – drink, drugs, eating, Internet, pornography, whatever – seek help and give it up. If you have a TV, why not give up the remote control, to identify with those who would love to get up and walk but can’t? If you use Facebook, why not give that up, and identify yourselves with those who are lonely or on their own? Why not limit your time on the Internet or in front of your Playstation, Wii or the TV, to identify with those who do not have what we have?
But Jesus also enjoins us that we should do these things ‘in secret’ – in other words, we should be expressing our faith in good works for his glory and not our own. The reward for living the Christian life is to be found in the glory of Heaven rather than here on earth. We are asked to set an example for others to follow of Christian discipleship, but in order that they may give praise to our heavenly Father.
Just as our computers need defragmenting from time to time, so do we; we need, by God’ grace, to remove the clutter that accumulates, whether by accident or design, and stops us from being the people whom God calls us to be. Lent is the ideal time for this ‘spiritual defragmentation’ – if we enter Lent with a spirit of penitence, God will work in us to put everything back as it should be. Then, we will be able to celebrate Easter with the true joy which that most holy of feasts, in which we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection, demands of us.
As we prayed during Mass last Sunday:
Grant, we pray, almighty God,
that, always pondering spiritual things,
we may carry out in word and deed
that which is pleasing to you.
May we always ponder spiritual things during this holy season of Lent, so that by our words and deeds we may give glory to God and set a good example to our brothers and sisters.