Ashes and the Message They Convey

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. On this day, Catholics will “get their ashes” – we will all go to Mass or another service at which our foreheads will be marked with a cross made with ashes. As the cross is being made, we will hear the priest or other minister distributing ashes say to us either: “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return” or “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”

Why do we hear these words?

The words “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return,” come from the book of Genesis; they are part of the words uttered by God to Adam and Eve after the fall. In the words of Pope John Paul II during one of his Ash Wednesday homilies, “Original sin and original sentence. By the act of the first Adam, death entered the world and every descendant of Adam bears the sign of death within him. All generations of humanity share in this inheritance.”

So we hear these words to remind us of death. But it is the alternative words that accompany our receipt of ashes that remind us of what it is that overcomes death. “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” These are the works in the Gospel of Mark with which Jesus begins his public ministry: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

Although we hear only one of these two formulations when we get our ashes, it is only together that they provide a complete message. It is true that we are sinners and that – left to our own devices we share in the inheritance of death. But we are loved sinners. And because of God’s love for us, God offers a path out of death – a path to new life, life everlasting. And Christ is that path.

May you have a blessed Lent.

 

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Lent as Invitation to Metanoia

Tomorrow is the beginning of Lent.  We typically think of Lent as a time of repentance, a term that we think of in terms of being sorry for our sins and resolving to refrain from committing them again.  And that is certainly a worthwhile practice.

In a reflection in Give Us This Day, James Martin invites us to a broader understanding of what that word means.  He suggests that the word the Gospels use for repentance means something a bit different, writing that in the Gospels, “both John the Baptist and Jesus call us to embrace a metanoia.  This Greek word means a complete change of mind and heart.  So it’s not simply a regretting of sins; it’s a complete reorientation of one’s life.”

What will you do this Lent to further that metanoia?  Martin suggests asking God to help you become aware of the parts of your life where you are, not only sinful, but unfree.

Ask yourself: What are the areas of unfreedom that lead you to act in unskillful ways?  And what is the grace you need from God to become free?

These are harder questions than simply giving up chocolate or some equivalent.  But, as Martin suggests in his reflection “‘turning over a new leaf’ can be both profoundly freeing and profoundly joyful.”

 

A Prayer to the Holy Spirit

I’m going through some papers in my office and came across this prayer to Holy Spirit.  It seemed to me a prayer we could all use at this time.  (My handwritten note indicates “anonynous” author; if you have a source for it, I’d be grateful to know it.)

Come, Holy Spirit,
Replace the tension within with a holy relaxation.
Replace the turbulence within with a sacred calm.
Replace the anxiety within with a quiet confidence.
Replace the fear within with a strong faith.
Replace the bitterness within with the sweetness of grace.
Replace the darkness within with a gentle light.
Replace the coldness within with a loving warmth.
Replace the night within with your day.
Replace the winter within with your spring.
Straighten my crookedness.
Fill my emptiness.
Blunt the edges of my pride.
Sharpen the edge of my humility.
Light the fires of love;
Quench the flames of lust.
Let me see myself as You see me.
That I may see You as You have promised,
and be blessed according to Your word;
Amen.

Blessings on your day!

Update: With gratitude to my friend Gerry, the source of the prayer appears to be Rev. Mother Rosalee Hill, R.S.C.J., although some attribute it to Anonymous and others to Father Moriarty.

Happy Valentines Day

When I was a child, we made Valentines Day cards for everyone – our parents, our siblings, our cousins, our teachers, our friends.  In some, but not all years, the recipients may have included someone we had a crush on.   And, up until well into my adulthood, my father gave candy on Valentines Day, not only to my mother, but to each of his four children ( his son as well as his three daughters).  No doubt that contributed to  to my sense that “Happy Valentines Day” was a greeting appropriately conveyed to anyone who meant something in my life.

So on this Valentines Day, let me say thank you and I love you to…

…those who have encouraged me and helped me to grow;

…those who have loved me even when I’m not being very lovable;

…those who have helped me look my demons in the face;

…those who have gone out of their way to be kind and caring;

…those who have given when I’ve been unwilling to ask;

…those who inspire me by their example;

…those who have quietly supported me, even when they haven’t understood the direction I was taking;

…those who have been willing to put an arm around me when I needed to be consoled and kick my behind when I’ve needed to be pushed;

…and all those who have enriched my life by their presence and by being who they are.

To all of you I say: Happy Valentines Day. Thank you and I love you.

[adapted from a post I made some years ago]

A Tactic of Love

Thomas Merton has often been a source of wisdom and reflection for me.  I thought these words of his from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander were useful for all of us in these fractious times.

The tactic of nonviolence is a tactic of love that seeks the
salvation and redemption of the opponent, not [our opponent’s] castigation,
humiliation, and defeat.  A pretended nonviolence that seeks to
defeat and humiliate the  adversary by spiritual instead of physical attack is little more
than a  confession of weakness.  True nonviolence is totally different
from this, and  much more difficult.  It strives to operate without hatred, without
hostility, and without resentment.  It works without aggression, taking the  side of the good that it is able to find already present in the adversary.  This may be easy to talk about in theory.  It is not easy in practice,  especially when the adversary is aroused to a bitter and violent  defense of  an injustice which [the adversary] believes to be just.  We must therefore be careful how we talk about our opponents, and still more careful
how we  regulate our differences with our collaborators.  It is possible for the  bitterest arguments, the most virulent hatreds, to arise among those who are  supposed to be working together for the noblest of causes.

Let Your Servant Go in Peace

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord.  The feast commemorates the day Mary and Joseph bringing their newborn child, Jesus, to the temple “to present him to the Lord” in fulfillment of the Scripture that “Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord.”  When they arrive at the temple, both the devout man Simeon and the prophetess Anna recognize Jesus as their Lord.

I love praying with the passage from Luke that describes this event.  I can feel Simeon’s joy and praise and confidence, as he holds the child and says to God, “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation.”  As I sat with the passage this morning, I wondered what it would take for me to honestly say, “I’m now ready to go in peace, Lord.”  (The best I can say is give me the grace to go willingly whenever you call me.)

I’m also always struck by Simeon’s words to Mary in this passage  “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted – and you yourself a sword will pierce – so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”  What must Mary have felt when she heard these words?  Frightening words to the mother of a baby.  You expect people to look at your baby and say things like, “He looks just like his mother,” or “What a beautiful baby.”  And if anyone makes any predictions, you expect to hear, “He’ll grow into a fine young man.”  But Mary hears a much more troubling prediction.

I’m guessing Mary did with those words what she did so often: pondered them in her heart.  And prayed to her God in whom she had so much faith and trust.  And loved her child… knowing he would not be hers forever.

We Must Remember

We are all familar with the adage that Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Today, January 27,  is Holocaust Remembrance Day.  On January 27 1945, the Soviet army entered Auschwitz and liberated more than 7000 survivors, who were mostly ill and dying.  As every year, many survivors of the camp will visit there, lighting candles and praying, or otherwise paying homage to those executed by the Nazis.

The day is an important one for all of us to mark, not just those liberated from the camps and their families.  Today is a challenge to all of us to learn from the past.  To learn where racism and hatred inevitably lead if left unchecked.