15 February 2010

The Ashes

I was asked to offer a reflection to the students at the Ash Wednesday service this week. Here's what I've come up with.

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So we now enter a liturgical season of eerie silence. Forty days to travel inward, to face those areas of our lives in need of reform and reconciliation. We push outward into the desert with Jesus, encouraged all along to let go of the many distractions and illusions that bind us from freedom and happiness.

This takes great courage because we are all-too tempted to fear and giving up. It is too easy to stay on the surface, to neglect the deepest need of our hearts. We are tempted to make fun of those who take their faith seriously, who cultivate the life of the spirit. But as the psalm says, “You may mock the poor man’s hope, but his refuge is the Lord.” And isn’t it true of all of us, in one way or another, that we are poor? That some part of us is starving to be fed?

Today, as in every Ash Wednesday, Jesus exhorts us in the gospel of Matthew to be alert, to live authentically. In this passage we just heard, he provides a kind of outline like a teacher to his student of how to go about this quest. He offers to us three main points and I’d like to say a word or two about each.

Giving alms

When the earth shook in Haiti and left untold thousands dead and suffering, our school community bonded together and raised a great deal of money to assist our strangers in need. Each of you spends time every year performing service to the world, feeding and building up our brothers and sisters who go without.

But can we continue to do this noble service while trumpeting our generosity? Jesus warns us that those who bring attention to themselves for giving to others have already received their reward, which is the passing sensation of satisfaction that never lasts and always turns to arrogance. He goes on to exhort us to give in secret, to make no scene about the good we do.

This Lent, make it a point to continue doing good for others. But do so quietly, in secret, “And your father who sees in secret will repay you.”


Every morning and afternoon and at the start of most classes we stand before the crucifixes in this school reciting prayers. I know I’m not alone in saying very often these prayers mean nothing to me, that I am simply going through the motions because it’s expected of us. When you seriously think about prayer, that it is the most profound activity a human person can perform, doesn’t it seem tragic that we reduce prayer to empty words?

Prayer is dangerous. Anyone who has given it a chance will tell you this. It’s dangerous because it has the capacity to totally and radically reorder your life. And this danger keeps many of us from doing it. It’s a sign of fear that we do not pray, or that we rattle off memorized words that have no impact and require no examination of self.

This Lent, make it a point to spend some time in silence every day. Make it a point to think about the prayers we recite, what we’re saying and what we’re asking for. Make it your prayer to be unafraid to take the adventure inward. Pray in your bedroom before you fall asleep or right when you wake up. Pray to him in secret, Jesus tells us, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.


Depriving the body of what it wants can be very difficult. We have all grown up in a society that maintains the creed that if it feels good, do it; and if you’re hungry, eat as much as you can. We are inundated by material things, bombarded by no short number of advertisements telling us what we need and what we should want. There is a pill for everything, an almost limitless variety of options to numb the pain.

The discipline of fasting has fallen on hard times. It seems only the most devout do it. When there are so many resources, so many types of food and drink, it seems an impossible undertaking to forego even the smallest snack.

Fasting is not a punishment. It is not a penalty. Fasting reminds us that we are much more than our bodies. It reminds us of who we are and to whom we belong. Lent is often reduced to a game of giving things up. It sometimes becomes a kind of competition to see who gives up what and how difficult such a sacrifice will be.

This Lent, commit yourself to disciplining the body. Go ahead and give something up. But don’t tell anyone what it is you’re doing and your Father who is hidden sees what is hidden and will repay you.


Finally, I would like to quote a very simple line from the Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation. It bears repeating and even memorization because it gets to the heart of Lent; it gets to the heart of where we’ve been and where we’re going.

Before the priest consecrates the bread and wine, he says to God, “When we were lost and could not find the way to you, you loved us more than ever. Jesus, your Son, innocent and without sin, gave himself into our hands and was nailed to cross.”

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