"Now, now," says the Lord, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments."
Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil. Who knows whether he will not turn and repent, and leave a blessing behind him, a cereal offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God?
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants.
Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep and say, "Spare your people, O Lord, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, `Where is their God?'" Then the Lord became jealous for his land, and had pity on his people.
Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness.
In your compassion blot out my offence.
O wash me more and more from my guilt
and cleanse me from my sin. (R./)
My offences truly I know them;
my sin is always before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned:
what is evil in your sight I have done. (R./)
A pure heart create for me, O God,
put a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
nor deprive me of your holy spirit. (R./)
Give me again the joy of your help;
with a spirit of fervour sustain me.
O Lord, open my lips
and my mouth shall declare your praise. (R./)
We are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says, "At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you." See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!
Jesus said to his disciples, "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
As we put ashes on our foreheads this Wednesday, we want to live Lent as a time of cleansing and holy desire, with some renewal of prayer, fasting and alms-giving. We begin this season of grace in a thoughtful spirit. The forty-day period of Lent reflects the time Jesus spent in the desert before his public ministry. It is a season of spiritual renewal, meant to help us to a more authentic style of life.
The Christian way, said St Augustine, “is an exercise of holy desire.” It does not require us to destroy or suppress our normal desires, but to raise and purify them. Our desires are too small if they are limited to wealth and status in this world; for God wants us to have so much more, no less than his very Self. We are to tune in to higher desires, to a deep-down longing for God. Jesus recommends 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 here and now. Prayer is the daily practice of our friendship with God and it opens the way to eternal life.
Fasting is a more tricky topic and is perhaps practice more by Muslims than by Catholics. But while we appreciate our food and the conviviality it promotes, we should also find a place for fasting. Our fasting is not mainly to lose weight or develope a well-toned body to be proud of. Some saints were corpulent while others were virtual skeletons, but they had this in common: they practiced spiritual self-denial, to sharpen their appetite for God.
All of us resonate in some way to the ideal of 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 Lenten cleansing as preparing us for a fuller love, which is possible only to the extent that we free ourselves from infatuation with material things. 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.”
The ashes on Ash Wednesday make tangible the transience of things and our own mortality. We try to start Lent as humble mortals, embodied spirits who are from the earth and will in time go back into the ground. “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” But the ashes are not intended merely to commemorate the transience of creation. The ashes used this Wednesday are made from 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 at Easter he rose from the dead to new life. Our ultimate destiny is not just a return to dust and ashes but sharing in the Lord’s risen life and seeing God face-to-face.