Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Lent: A Season of Conversion - a sermon for Ash Wednesday, 2014

Over the last month, we’ve been focusing intensely on the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus stresses that we’re supposed to be different from everyone else, that we’re supposed to be like him, that we’re supposed be holy, that we’re supposed to behave as true sons and daughters of God the Father. Today, to help us to begin Lent, the Church wants us to focus on the section of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus speaks to us about how we’re supposed to give alms differently than the rest, to pray differently than the rests and to fast differently than the rest. Insofar as these are the three great Lenten penitential practices geared to helping us reorder our relationship with God (prayer), with others (almsgiving) and with our own appetites, hungers and desires (fasting), we ought to listen with greater attentiveness to Jesus as he shows us not only how to do these right as Christians but how properly to reorder our entire life as we enter into this holy season of conversion.
“When you give alms,” Jesus says,” do not blow a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others.” He was pointing to the fact that when the Jews gave alms in the temple and in their synagogues, there was a tuba-like twisted funnel in which they’re put their coins and it would roll down the spiral pipework into a locked box. There would be many people who would give in order to “make a lot of noise” as their gifts descended through the funnel, turning the heads of those who were at the temple at the time. Jesus said that we are supposed to give almost in a totally different way. “When you give alms,” he insisted, “do not let your left hand know what your right is doing so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” We are to give alms, in other words, in communion with the Father, for his pleasure and for his glory, so that others, receiving the alms, may thank him instead of us. God, after all, is the one who gave us the alms to give to others in the first place.
With regard to our prayer, Jesus says likewise that we’re supposed to pray differently than everyone else. “When you pray,” he declares, “do not be like the hypocrites who loved to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them.” The word “hypocrite” means “actor,” someone who’s pretending, someone who seems to be praying but really isn’t focused on God at all but in gaining the attention of others. Jesus tells us, rather, “When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” The word he uses for “inner room” refers to the “store room” that Jews would have in their houses. The outer doors were in general not locked and people could enter easily when they were not there. But they retained a “store room,” a locked closet inside where they would place all their valuables so that they couldn’t be taken. Jesus said that we should go to our inner room within us where we store our valuables, where we store our inheritance, and meet God the Father there. Prayer is supposed to be an intimate exchange of persons with God the Father and just like married couples don’t engage in their most intimate moments in the middle of the public square for everyone else to see, so when we pray we should do so in a way that maintains that great intimate communion with God. That’s why Jesus, immediately after telling us how we’re supposed to pray differently than all the rest, tells us — in a section that’s been excised from today’s reading — that we’re supposed to pray to our Father who knows what we need before we ask him in this way: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name.” Prayer is about seeking the hallowing of the Father’s name, desiring the Father’s kingdom, hungering to do the Father’s will, confident that he as a loving Father will give us each day our daily bread, as a merciful Father will forgive us as he calls us to forgive others, and as a protective Father will help us in temptation to avoid doing evil.
And Jesus today describes how we’re supposed to fast differently, too.  “When you fast,” he says, “do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance so that they may appear to others to be fasting.” Their fasting, he said, was a show. To others they seemed to be intent on atoning for their sins — the principal purpose of fasting — but they were only adding to their sins by proudly faking their penitence out of vanity. Jesus said that we’re supposed to be fasting in a totally different manner. “When you fast,” he said, “anoint your head and wash your face so that you may not appear to be fasting except to your Father who is hidden, and your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.” We’re supposed to be fasting in a way seen only to the Father, because it’s he before whom we need to atone, it’s he whom we must ask for forgiveness. As we see with Jesus’ fasting in the desert and the temptations that the evil one gave him at the end of that first Lent, our fasting is meant to help us to detach ourselves from stuffing our physical appetites and desires so that we might hunger for “every word that comes from the mouth of God.” When we fast, we do prayerful penance with our body for all the times that we’ve sought our pleasures over God’s will and with God’s help we gain a self-mastery so that we are able to hunger after what’s most important, God himself, his Word, his will, his kingdom, and his glory.
As we hear Jesus speak to us in the Sermon on the Mount, it’s key for us to grasp that Jesus takes it for granted here that we will be giving alms, praying and fasting. To be his disciple, all three need to be routine parts of our life, not just during the Lenten season but throughout the year. To be a Christian is to pray. To be a Christian is to fast. To be a Christian is to give generously to others of what God has given to us. If we haven’t been living these Christian realities throughout the year, Lent is a new beginning. But the Church reminds us of these words of Jesus at the beginning of Lent because many times when we’re praying, fasting and giving alms, we, like those in his day, are doing them externally, as mere duties, perhaps to impress others by our religious observance, or to receive some other human “reward,” rather than inwardly as something that restores and reorders our divine filiation, our loving communion as sons and daughters with heavenly Father, and seeks the reward of the Father himself. Jesus today focuses less on the action itself, which he presumes we’ll know we need to do, and far more on our motivation, to do each of them, in fact to do everything good we do, with the proper loving, filial heart.
This whole discussion of how we’re supposed to pray, fast and give alms brings us to the main point of Lent, which is the conversion of our hearts, our insides, our motivations, our aspirations, so that from the inside out, in all our actions, we might live as Christians ought, in the love of God the Father. Lent is the time when we relive the Parable of the Prodigal Son, when we come to our senses as to how we’ve treated God as if he were not a loving Father, wandered from his house, squandered the inheritance he has given us and make the journey home. It’s the time when God the Father runs out to meet us, to cleanse us, to restore us to our full dignity and to rejoice with us at our conversion.
That journey is what God himself summons us to do through the Prophet Joel in today’s first reading, “Return to me with your whole heart!” God loves us and he wants us back! But he doesn’t just want part of us to return. He wants us fully to return to him. He wants us to come to back to him with our all our heart, and with all our strength, and with all our mind and all our soul. He tells us through the prophet. “Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God.” The Jews, when they beheld serious sin, would always rend their garments, which meant to rip open the upper parts of their tunics and cloaks near their neck, which would be laced together like shoelaces. When they rent their garments, they broke the shoelaces in testimony that what they had observed was immoral. God tells us he doesn’t want us ripping open our clothes. He doesn’t want our repentance to be external. He wants us rip open our hearts, our whole hearts, “with fasting, weeping, and mourning,” three activities all associated with repentance, so that we can restore and rebuild those hearts to be the inner room where he can come in and enter into life changing, loving communion with us.
“Our conversion,” the Holy Father said, “is the conscious response to the stupendous mystery of the love of God. When we see this love that God has for us, we feel the desire to draw close to him. This is conversion. Lent must be lived as a time of conversion, or personal and communal renewal through drawing close to God and faithfully adhering to the Gospel.” Just as in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, when we start the road home to the Father’s house, we grasp that he has already long been awaiting our return and runs out to embrace us, to restore us to our divine filiation and to restore us as true brothers and sisters of each other. That’s the encounter God wants to have with us in the inner room of our prayer. That’s the embrace he wants to have with us as we hunger for what he wants to give. That’s the effects he wants to bring about in us as we feel moved to share his loving generosity with others by giving of ourselves and what we have in alms.
That’s what can happen in Lent. That’s what’s God wants to have happen in Lent. But whether it does or not depends on our response as free sons and daughters. God is calling us to return to him, he’s awaiting us with love, but he doesn’t force us home. We have to take him up on this loving offer. We have to act. And we have to act urgently, living this Lent as if it is the last and only Lent we’ll ever have. St. Paul reminds us of the grace we’ve been given but also the urgency with which we need to respond in today’s second reading. As an ambassador for Christ, an emissary, a spokesman for Jesus himself, he tells us, “We implore you on behalf of Christ. Be reconciled to God.” He begs us “not to receive the grace of God in vain,” not to waste this time of conversion, not to squander this great opening to encounter God in the depth of his merciful love. He urges us to repent and believe in the Gospel without delay, reminding us that “now” is the “acceptable time,” “now” — not tomorrow, not next week, not when I’m older, now — is the “day of salvation.”

Today, and the Lenten season of conversion that has begun today, is the time, through our prayer, fasting and almsgiving, through our weeping and mourning, through our profound repentance, to return to God with our whole heart, to be embraced by him in his love, to be restored to the graces of our baptism, and to grow ever more to believe, proclaim and live his saving Gospel!

No comments:

Post a Comment