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May the Relationship Building Begin
By Felix Carroll (Feb 17, 2015)
On Ash Wednesday, Feb. 18, we receive our Lenten instructions through the gospel reading.
1. We are "to perform righteous deeds," but privately, without blowing our horns "as the hypocrites do" (Mt 6:2).
2. We are to draw into a deeper relationship with God through prayer, but prayer done privately, without a showy display (see Mt 6:5).
3. We are to fast, but not with a "gloomy" look for the sake of public appearances (Mt 6:16).
That's a lot of attention paid to staying out of the public eye. Yet when the priest smears the burned residue of palm fronds upon our foreheads, Ash Wednesday can seem suddenly like a glorious paradox, can't it? We are called to quiet repentance, to a deeper relationship with God, yet with these ashes we become so literally marked men and women — public penitents.
Wait a minute: With these ashes so front and center on our countenances, aren't we drawing attention to ourselves in a manner that the Gospel reproves? No! Rather, we are drawing attention to the reality that the world is broken, that we are all sinful, that we know how the story begins and how it ends: That we are dust, and to dust we will return.
The only trumpet we blow is the one that heralds God's invitation to repentance and redemption, that calls us to abandon crippling sin so that we may walk with Him in eternity, the One who heralds His presence in our lives, the one who says "Be not afraid. Be at peace."
Other than that, consider these ashes our "Do Not Disturb" sign. We are telling the world that it's quiet time now, for 40 days.
Here's another way of looking at it. Think of the words to that old country-western song: "I know I've been gone too long/ when going home is like moving on ..."
During Lent, we are especially called to come home to God because our sinfulness has kept us away too long.
When we follow the Lenten tradition of "giving up" something these 40 days, we show a sign to God that we are committed to coming home, our bags packed, crosses hoisted. But giving up a vice of some sort — dessert, alcohol, television, whatever the case may be — is only the beginning. We must be willing to surrender our pride and our sins and to search our hearts and decide who or what sits at its throne. Material things? Personal ambition? Or God?
This Lent, spend your days in praise of Him and in fruitful service to Him and others. Commit to engage in works of mercy — without drawing attention to yourself.
Lastly, contemplate the face of the Lord. As Scripture tells us, "Beholding the glory of the Lord, we are being changed into His likeness" (2 Cor 3:18). To that end, there may be no better way than through frequent veneration of the Image of Divine Mercy (with the words beneath it that read "Jesus, I trust in You!").
With these ashes, may we draw attention to the fact that we are owned, that we are marked as His prized possessions, that our fates are entwined with a God who loves us, who always has, who always will.