After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." He said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you."
When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." He said, "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me." And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.
The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, "By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice."
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.
Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.
As we receive the ashes on our foreheads, we want to live Lent as a time of cleansing and holy desire, helped by some Gospel practices: prayer, fasting and alms-giving. We begin this season by receiving ashes on our foreheads, often in the form of a cross. The forty days of Lent echo the time Jesus spent in the desert before his public ministry. Lent is meant to help us to a more effective Christian lifestyle.
The Christian life, said St Augustine, "is an exercise of holy desire." It does not ask that we suppress our normal desires, but to raise and purify them. Our desires are too small if our ultimate values are those of this world; for God wants us to have so much more, no less than his very Self. During Lent we tune in to higher desires, to deep-down longing for God. And Jesus shows us the way of prayer, fasting and alms-giving, the classic Lenten practices. Of these, prayer has first place. Our eternity will be our relationship with the living God, a relationship that begins in this life, or it does not begin at all. Our most shared prayer is during the Mass, the loving sacrifice of Christ which opens heaven to us. Prayer is the daily practice of our friendship with God, and it opens the way to eternal life.
Fasting is more tricky for us today and is perhaps practice more by Muslims than by Catholics. But while we appreciate our food and the conviviality that often accompanies a good meal, we should also find a place for fasting. The main goal of Lenten fasting is not a well-toned body to be proud of. Some saints were quite corpulent, others were virtual skeletons, but they had this in common: they practiced voluntary self-denial, to sharpen their appetite for God. All of us resonate in some way to the ideal of alms-giving as compassionate sharing. Lent is good time to rid ourselves of some clutter in our life. With a bit more vision, could we perhaps do more to serve the needy, not to be praised as generous, but to imitate God's generosity to us?
Augustine sees cleansing as preparing us to practice holy desire, which is possible only to the extent that we free ourselves from infatuation with this world. It is like filling an empty container. "God means to fill us with what is good — so cast out what is bad! If God wishes to fill us with honey and we are full of sour wine, where is the honey to go? The vessel must first be emptied and cleansed."
Ash Wednesday could hardly make more tangible the transience of things and our own mortality. We start Lent humbly, close to the ground, close to our earthiness: "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return." But the ashes are not just to commemorate the transience of creation. These ashes used this Wednesday are the residue of the palms of last year's Passion-Sunday. Jesus died and was buried in a tomb, the place of decay and the place of dust. Yet he rose from the dead to new life. Our ultimate destiny is not dust and ashes but a sharing in the Lord's risen life, becoming conformed to the image of Christ. As we journey towards that destiny we hear the call to grow more fully into the image of God's Son, which is a call to turn away from sin, to repent. The ashes are a sign of our desire to do just that. The traditional practices of Lent that we heard about in the gospel put before us the essentials for growth into the image of God's Son " a greater love of God (prayer), a more generous love of neighbour (alms giving), and a truer love of ourselves (fasting). We recommit ourselves on Ash Wednesday to build our lives on those three loves, so that we may more fully become all that God is calling us to be. [MH]
The more active women in a certain parish once decided that their Lenten project should be something to benefit the whole parish. They met several time to discuss what each of them thought would be most beneficial project they could sponsor. One woman suggested they have a children's Easter fashion show. She knew her daughter would love to do something like that. Another woman suggested a "house walk" where some of the owners of the newest and biggest houses in the community could let the rest of the community see how they decorated their houses for Easter.
Several similar ideas were put forth but support for each idea was rather evenly split. Finally, one woman who had been silent during the whole discussion suggested that a Lenten project that would benefit the entire parish might best be one in which everyone in the parish could participate as they lived out the season of preparation for Easter. The other women were a bit surprised at her suggestion. No one had stopped to think "outside the box" of spring fashion shows and hose walks. As they thought about it and discussed what they might do, they came to realize that they had gotten caught up in ideas that didn't really reflect the spirit of Easter. This shared insight helped them focus on ways in which their project would be one that would help the whole community appreciate the spirit of resurrection.