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Fr. Glenn: Bent On Lent

on March 3, 2019 - 6:34am

By Fr. Glenn Jones

Well, now that we’re in March, we Christians are about to come into the season of Lent with Ash Wednesday this week—pretty late this year, as it’s more often around mid to latter February. How is the beginning of Lent calculated? In the larger part of western Christianity (the Eastern Churches calculates it differently), it is forty days before Easter (not counting the Sundays)—Easter itself calculated by being 1) the first Sunday 2) after the first full moon 3) after the spring equinox. Got that? Of course the date of Easter is based on the old lunar calendar of the Jewish faith, since Jesus’ resurrection—the very reason for the Easter celebration—occurred at the time of the Jewish Passover. So, you can study the intricacies of the lunar calendar, or … you can just look at the calendar like the rest of us. :)

But … Lent.

At times we Catholics have people ask, especially on Ash Wednesday: “What is the purpose of Lent? Why do you Catholics go around with those ashes on your face?”

The ashes remind us that our physical lives are so very temporary … that physically we are nothing … little more than dust and ashes destined to return to the earth … an unbelievably complex self-sustaining and self-animating bundle of chemical reactions. That bodily mortality came home again this week with three funerals—two long-serving priests and a nun. But our souls—that animating spirit within us which transcends mere nature and enables us to plan, to create, to reason, compose and to worship—we believe to be supernatural, and thus must be created by a supernatural being: God, our Father and Creator. Thus, to this existence-creating Father we owe our very being, our love and our dedication.

And yet, in our passions and weakness we rebel against this Heavenly Creator … seeking our own selfishness against His design, and to the detriment of our fellow Man.

Lent and its devotions are designed to aid us in recalling these realities…to seek forgiveness for failures against our Creator and our fellows, and to re-orient us to reject evil and to seek the Good.  As we hear in the Mass for Ash Wednesday: “Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God.” (Joel 2:12-13)

The fasting, the Friday abstinences from meat, the ashes, are not goals in themselves, but rather tools of self-denial to help focus us on what God desires of us, such as we hear from the prophet Isaiah:

“This…is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly…Setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; Clothing the naked…and not turning your back on your own. If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech… If you bestow your bread on the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted…Then your light shall break forth like the dawn…you shall call, and the Lord will answer, you shall cry for help, and He will say: ‘Here I am!’” (Isaiah 58:6-9In other words: to love God first of all, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Death soon comes for us all, and we and all we material possessions are soon dust and ashes …  we to stand before the merciful judgment seat of God. Thus with the ashes and the starkness of the Lenten liturgies we are brought to remember: What in the world is significant compared to eternity? Why do we focus so much upon the moment and yet forget about forever?

As the psalm inquires of us: “Oh men, how long will your hearts be closed, will you love what is futile and seek what is false?” (Psalm 4) And Isaiah: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not [true] bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (Isaiah 55:2) … for, as we realize with age: “…the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing…” (Ecclesiastes 1:8) There is always that desire for “something more” that the world is simply unable to satisfy. And these are questions not limited to Christian reflection, but are long-held wisdom of the world. As St. Augustine so famously wrote: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”

So … Lent is for us to reflect on our lives … to realize where we have failed God and neighbor. In this self-examination we need be honest, rigorous—and even merciless—in our self-examination … to cleanse out the bad, and cultivating the good within ourselves. 

So, on Ash Wednesday when you see “those durn Catholics” trotting around with the ashes on their foreheads, know that we do it in proclamation of our devotion to God and (hopefully) devotion to the Good—beginning a forty-day re-orientation through self-denial and self-reflection. And remember … in large part we do it for YOU—that we might become more tolerant and charitable to our families, our co-workers, and even any adversaries or those who dislike us … and to all whom we meet … for, whether YOU believe or not, WE believe that you, too, are a beloved child of God. Thus, we seek to ever improve (albeit flailingly) our observance of the command given us by Jesus Himself: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

And to my beloved Catholic brethren (and “sistren”) ... especially to my beloved former flock at IHM: go courageously with Christ’s sign upon you … remembering the salvation He won for us upon the cross … and boldly proclaim with Joshua by the cross of ashes: “…as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD!” (Joshua 24:15)

Rev. Glenn Jones is the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and former pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Los Alamos.