05 March 2014

Making our gratuitous lives sacrificial

Ash Wednesday 2006
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX

Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning. Rend your hearts! Not your garments.

Where do we begin this pilgrimage of forty days? How do we get this time away, this time apart from worldly obsession started?

What jumpstarts our Lenten pilgrimage is first an awareness of our dependence on God for absolutely everything. That we exist at all is contingent, totally conditioned on the goodness of God. Our lives are gratuitous, freely given, radically graced.

Begin this Lenten trek, then, in humility and give God thanks for your life.

If your Lenten pilgrimage is going to produce excellent spiritual fruit you cannot spend these forty days wallowing in sorrow, self-pity, and mortal deprivation. We deny ourselves always if we would grow in holiness, but this isn’t the kind of denial that looks like the public posturing of the Pharisees. Our Lenten denial is the self-emptying of Christ, that is, our best work at doing what Jesus did on the cross. Lenten denial is about making our gratuitous lives sacrificial. We sacrifice when we give something up and give it back to God.

Therefore, turn your heart over to God. Give your life back to Him. Repent of your disobediences, rejoice in His always ready forgiveness, and then get busy doing His holy work among His people.

If your Lenten trek is going to be about little more than pious public display, don’t bother with Lent this year. Jesus teaches his disciples that performing righteous deeds for show—fasting, giving alms—will win you nothing from our heavenly Father. He calls those who strut around showing off their piety hypocrites. It’s a show, pure theater. Nothing but thin drama for public consumption. He says, “[…] when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting[…].”

Jesus’ admonition here is about our tendency to think that we’re doing something substantial when really all we’re doing is something very superficial. Does that rosary around Madonna’s neck really mean she venerates the Blessed Mother? Does the cross of ashes most of us will wear today mean that we’re truly humble before the Lord? That we’re wholly given over to repentance, to a conversion of heart, and a life of holy service? If that cross of ashes is going to be a mark of pride for you today or a temptation to hypocrisy, wash it off immediately. If that cross of ash is going to be the sum total of your witness for Christ today, wash it off immediately. In fact, when you fast, wash your face!

Our Lord wants our contrite heart not our empty gesture. Our Lord wants our repentant lives not our public dramas of piety. When you pray, go to your room and close the door. When you fast, wash your face. When you give alms, do so in secret. Rend your hearts not your garments.

The Lenten pilgrimage we begin today is an excursion into mortality, a chance for us to face without fear our origin and our destiny in ash. It is our chance to practice the sacrificial life of Christ, giving ourselves to God by giving ourselves in humble service to one another. Lent is our forty day chance to pray, to give alms, to fast and to do it all with great joy, smiling all the while, never looking to see who’s noticing our sacrifice.

Remember, brothers and sisters: dust is never proud.

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