Monday, February 27, 2017

Lent and the Holy Smudge

Dear Friends,

Lent begins on Wednesday. Not surprisingly, large numbers of people will find their way to one of the timely  Masses  and services that will be held that day. People, even those who do not frequent weekly liturgies, somehow find Ash Wednesday relevant.  We will accept on our foreheads and wear all daylong the holy smudge. We will wear it as a sign of conviction and a badge of commitment – a proclamation that we are believers in the Risen and Living Holy One who died to give us life beyond all telling. Lent is the beginning of our pilgrimage to Easter, with all that meant for Jesus and could mean for us.

The holy smudge, for us, is an outward sign of something deep in us. At least that’s the hope. The holy smudge is somewhat akin to the phylacteries (little boxes) the Israelites were instructed in Deuteronomy to wear on their foreheads and wrists . In these boxes were written the Shema, which begins: “Hear, O Israel, that the Lord our God is one.” Hopefully for the people who wore them they were more than outward signs.

A variety of people who walked with Jesus did outward public actions in his name, but Jesus was not impressed. He  spoke harshly about the ones  who did these acts  only to be noticed, but whose hearts didn’t belong to Christ. There was no personal commitment in them. Jesus said to them: I never knew you.

But Jesus knows us when we try to discern God’s will for our actions and the direction of our lives. We are called to be salt, light, blessedness for others.  When we cease to contribute to the worlds’ overdose of violence in word and action, the holy smudge of Ash Wednesday reaches our hearts. Justice, compassion and unity become more than causes. They mean that God in us is active and generous.

Great spiritual gifts have been given to us. We relish them and amplify them during Lent through the practices that are thousands of years old: prayer that opens us up to God’s grace, fasting that makes us understand the hungers that really matter and giving alms from our need and not just from our overage. This Lent, I hope we can be imaginative about what these practices mean. One Latin American bishop, recognizing that in his poor country most people had little to eat, told them to find new ways to fast. If you know how to read – he told them – teach someone else to read. That’s being imaginative with one of the core practices of Lent. Poetically put by some anonymous bard:
                                Is this a Fast to keep the larder lean? And clean of veals and sheep?
                                is it to quit the dish of flesh, yet still to fill the platter high with fish?
                                Is it to fast an hour, and show a downcast look and dour?
                                No: ‘tis a Fast to dole thy sheaf of wheat and meat unto the hungry soul.
                                It is to fast from strife and old debate and hate;
                                To circumcise thy  life.
                                To show a heart grief-rent; to starve thy sin, not bin;

                                And that’s to keep thy Lent.

~Sister Joan Sobala