Friday after Ash Wednesday

Today’s readings remind us that Our Lord is not an agent of the Internal Revenue Service and we shouldn’t treat him like one. In today’s First Reading Israel is treating the Lord like the IRS: fasting is all they think they owe, so, like taxes, they settle for fasting as their civic and religious duty and want nothing to do with the “tax collector,” waiting for a refund. The Lord reminds them today that if they really want to please him it would mean much more that they treat others fairly and justly (including him). He is criticizing those who just fast in order to appease him, but want nothing to do with him or others in any meaningful way.

Lent is characterized by some exterior practices and customs: we place the ashes on our head, celebrate the liturgy with colors symbolizing suffering and penitence, and look for the Lenten Friday fish specials. However, these practices must come from the heart; they are a way to measure whether we’re holding up all three Lenten “fronts”–prayer, fasting, and almsgiving–which we should also work on throughout the year. If we’re skipping the sweets, are we also making sure that we’re not losing our patience with others? If we’re focusing on prayer, are we also not neglecting the charity we owe to others, and practicing healthy spiritual self-mastery? If we’re  dedicating some more time to others and their needs, are we also making time for God? All three fronts are important; in Lent we usually focus on one and make an extra effort, but we should also be sure to maintain our usual effort on the other fronts as well.

The disciples of John the Baptist in today’s Gospel are focusing on fasting and penitence, just as they were taught, but they don’t understand why Our Lord is not exacting the same thing from his disciples, especially considering that John has been saying that Jesus is “the One.” They’re not Our Lord’s disciples yet; his disciples are being initiated into the simple prayer of being with him, and the charity that comes with following him and helping him to serve others. Jesus doesn’t mince words: his disciples will also have their moments of fasting, but for now they are focusing on prayer and charity. As the Holy Week liturgies will remind us, they’ll have plenty of fasting and self-denial soon enough.

Lent is just three days underway. We may not be feeling the pinch yet of our Lenten resolutions, but let’s take stock today of how we’re doing on all three fronts.

Readings: Isaiah 58:1–9a; Psalm 51:3–6ab, 18–19; Matthew 9:14–15.  See also 13th Week in Ordinary Time, Saturday.

Thursday after Ash Wednesday

One of the things that makes Lent a somber time of penance and preparation is that it falls under the long shadow of the Cross. The Cross, death due to sin, awaited humanity since the Fall. In the First Reading today Moses exhorts the Israelites to choose life instead of death, blessing instead of curse, and so often, through sin and infidelity, they chose to be cursed and to die in their sins. Fulton Sheen in his work Life of Christ described the shadow of the Cross as covering Our Lord even as he first shed blood on the day of his circumcision as an infant. Our Lord in today’s Gospel encourages his disciples not to flee the cross, but to take it up and follow him, because through his sacrifice on the Cross, in death we’ll pass into eternal life.

Through living our Lenten resolutions we make an extra effort to take up our cross and not flee it, to follow him, since we know his way is the Way of the Cross. Through prayer we give God back a little more of our attention and time; through fasting we crucify ourselves to those little creature comforts that can make us try to cast down our cross; through giving alms we show our love for God through a love for others. In all these things we deny ourselves something and take up our cross, following and imitating Our Lord. If we feel the Lenten grind it means we’ve picked a good Lenten resolution, one that shows we’re willing to lose our lives so that Christ can save them.

Lent is only two days underway. It’s not too late to pick or change your Lenten resolution so that you really carry the cross a little more this Lent and follow Jesus. Everything you feel now as loss will be gain in Christ if you take up your cross and follow him.

Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15–20; Psalm 1:1–4, 6; Luke 9:22–25. See also 18th Week in Ordinary Time, Friday and 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B.

Ash Wednesday

Just as the prophet Joel calls Israel to unite in worship in a spirit of penance, so today we gather liturgically to begin an extended period of penance that we call Lent. As the minister places the ashes on our heads we hear either the first words of the Gospel that Our Lord preached when beginning his public ministry (“Repent, and believe in the Gospel”), or that we came from nothing but dust and our sins want us to return to dust and not enjoy what Our Creator has wished for us (“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”). If we need to be reminded of the first Gospel steps to take in life, and of the fact that we are creatures it means we’ve lost sight of the big picture. Lent helps us bring that big picture back into focus.

St. Paul in today’s Second Reading reminds us of the goal of our penance: to be reconciled to God. The Lord himself doesn’t need to seek out our reconciliation and is blameless for us estranging ourselves from him, but he comes to reconcile us with the Heavenly Father anyway. It is through Jesus Christ that the work of our reconciliation is accomplished, and during these days of Lent we are remembering and preparing for that very event. Even as we consider the somber purple of this season we remember the sorrow and suffering, often self-inflicted, that we experience due to our sins, as well as the pain inflicted on Our Lord and on others. So we begin once again with prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to draw closer to God and to others in sorrow for our sins and a desire for reconciliation, confident that Our Lord at the end of these days will win us the graces to do so.

Let’s receive the ashes today with contrite hearts and ask the Lord to help us adopt the best Lenten resolutions for conquering our sins effectively and reconciling us with God and with others.

Readings: Joel 2:12–18; Psalm 51:3–6ab, 12–14, 17; 2 Corinthians 5:20–6:2; Matthew 6:1–6, 16–18. See also 11th Week in Ordinary Time, Wednesday.