Rants and Ruminations: Ash Wednesday

There is a picture on Facebook of a couple of young priests offering “ashes to go ” at a college library. While I have no doubt they are hoping to be evangelistic with this act, I fear it supports what is wrong with “Christianity” in America and some of the very things from which we should be repenting this day.

First, to give “ashes to go” robs the individual of corporate worship. Radical individualism is already a grievous sin of the American Church. We only go to church when it is convenient, we want to “get something out of it” when we go, and if the music doesn’t suit me then I will just go down the road or watch on the internet. The concept of gathering as Christ’s Body to minister to Him ( hence it is not about me) is lost in our individualism.

Second, a drive by ash service robs the individual of thorough self examination. The liturgy of Ash Wednesday offered IN the Church certainly does but being cool and getting your ashes on the go does not. Without a thorough self examination and repentance, how complete would absolution be? Are we taking sin seriously or giving it a wink and a nod? Damage to a person’s soul is a high price to pay for being “relevant.”

Third, it supports would could be idolatry, in seeking a religious experience apart from the Lord of that experience. Getting ashes to get a good feeling, or putting a rosary around your rear view mirror to make you feel safe, or going to worship to get a religious high are all potential snares. If we look to these things and not to the One behind them then we are practicing false piety.

Radical individualism, not taking sin seriously and false piety are sins about which we need to repent not promote. I know that they too often describe me and I need help from the Church with amendment of life. Don’t give me shortcuts, for heaven’s sake!

Many years ago, before entering the priesthood, when my son was still small, we knelt together at the rail to receive the imposition of ashes. As we were returning to our pew my son said “Dad, I feel weird”. Believing that he just had his first experience with being faced with his own mortality and his accountability to God, I said, “We are supposed to.” It is that spirit that I hope instead of feeling cool that we had ashes today, I hope that we will all feel just a little weird.

Rants and Ruminations: On Lent

Tomorrow we walk with our Lord in His 40 days in the wilderness, preparing ourselves for Easter. It is a time of reflection, self denial and drawing closer to God. To help us toward that end the Church calls on us to fast, pray and give alms.

There are a couple of reasons for fasting. First is for humility. Ps 59:10. Self denial is a form of humbling ourselves because it is a way of saying we don’t get whatever we want. In combining prayer with fasting we are declaring our utter reliance upon God just as Jesus told Satan in the wilderness. ” Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Second, fasting redirects our energies which we can orient toward the Lord. Someone who has difficulty finding time to read Scripture or pray, if they will fast from TV or video games, will be amazed at how much time they really do have.

Most will engage in a form of fast during these 40 days where we deny ourselves something that remains in front of our attention, usually something we really enjoy. Unless you live in Alaska, giving up polar bear meat is not a challenge. It’s not to be masochistic rather it is to have an impact. But for fasting to have its maximum value it must be more than simply taking away. If I spend 40 days missing chocolate, and can only think of when I can eat it again after Easter, then I have not gained much spiritually. But if I will add a spiritual discipline to my fasting that will make a difference. So if every time I find myself missing chocolate, I engage in intercessory prayer for others, then good things will happen.

We can also connect the fast to giving alms. This aspect of Lent is important because it focuses us on the needs of others. Lent is not a self improvement course. It is a time to grow in the love of the Lord and His love calls us to care “for the least of these.”  ( Mt 25). So if you fast from lunch during Lent, don’t put that money in your pocket. Save it and donate it to a charity like Food for the Poor or your local rescue shelter.

Above all our focus on Lent must be from the right perspective. The Scripture says that it is the goodness of God that leads us to repentance (Rom2:4). As we meditate on His love and Christ’s sacrifice for us we will want to turn from things that deny that love. We will want to draw closer. This is NOT a time to open ourselves to condemnation because “there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus”. (Rom 8:1). It is the enemy of our souls that would fill us with hopelessness or discouragement. When the Holy Spirit convicts us of sin, He also offers us the grace to change.

So Lent, even though a sober time, is a time of going from glory to glory. We come to Him burdened and heavy laden with sin and failure.  But instead of trying harder we yield ourselves to Him in new ways these 40 days and we find ourselves refreshed and uplifted by the victory of Easter as He makes all things new.