A cloudy evening sky provides the backdrop for a cross outside St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Lake Ronkonkoma, N.Y., during Lent last April. In his Lenten Message, Cardinal Seán O’Malley asks Catholics “to live more intensely our union with the Lord and with our brothers and sisters in the Church.” CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic
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Dearly Beloved in Christ,
Lent always begins with the powerful symbol of ashes. I love to see people walking down the street with the smudge on their foreheads. I feel a sense of solidarity with fellow believers who are saying to the world: “I believe in God who created me. I am a sinner doomed to die, but in God’s love Jesus Christ stepped in front of the bullet to save me. And I am a Catholic. And Lent is here.” A little bit of ashes says so much.
One of my favorite stories from the Bible is the story of Jonah who was a reluctant prophet. He was afraid to deliver the bad news to the people of Nineveh: “In 40 days God is going to destroy your city because you are all so wicked.” The king and the people put ashes on their heads, fasted and prayed and the story has a happy ending. God says, “I forgive you. I shall spare your city.” I am always amused by the fact that Jonah was disappointed by the outcome. He had been looking forward to the fireworks. God however is always working for a happy ending. The ashes remind us that we come from dust, and it is a round trip. But the ashes are placed in the shape of a cross. The dust has been redeemed! God so loved the world that He sent us Jesus as our Savior.
Religion and jogging are seen in our pluralistic society as optional extras. Even the churches seem not to question this assumption. Much energy is expended demonstrating that religion is a desirable “optional extra.” So religion becomes a product to be sold, just one of many pathways to individual fulfillment.
But in fact, we are made with an orientation toward God. We are made for God. The ashes on our foreheads should be a sign to all of the urgency of the Gospel. We are the Ninevites and our story will have a happy ending only if we take the Word of God seriously.
Sometimes we want to follow Jesus at a safe distance, like Peter on Holy Thursday after Jesus is arrested. Sometimes we want to be invisible Christians blending into the landscape. Yet Jesus reminds us that: “You are the light of the world, a city built on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matt 5:14). Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that discipleship is as visible as light in the dark, as a mountain in the flatland.
The Sermon on the Mount begins with Jesus gathering His disciples around Him to teach them. The Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes are not a list of requirements but a description of the life of a people gathered around Jesus.
Lent is a time to circle the wagons, to live more intensely our union with the Lord and with our brothers and sisters in the Church. I would certainly encourage participation in the men’s and women’s conferences on March 17 and 18 as a joyful Lenten experience. To reduce Lent to a 40-day long crash diet or exercise program is to miss the boat. Discipline is a part of Lent, but only in the context of penance, which means “conversion of heart.” Fasting, almsgiving, mortifications are not themselves “penance” but rather the fruits of penance.
The visibility that Jesus calls for in the first part of the Sermon on the Mount is qualified by His rebuke of those who practice righteousness in order to be seen. We are to be the light of the world, but we are to give alms in secret.
Jesus’ admonition that we avoid calling attention to ourselves through practice of piety implies that not only is it important what we do but also how we do it. Our external actions take on value in God’s eyes when they reflect the love and humility in our heart. Our focus must not be on our good deeds but in following Jesus and in being gathered with the other disciples around Jesus.
Prayer helps us shift the focus from us to God and to deepen our awareness that any capacity to do good works is itself a gift from God. We do not congratulate ourselves for good works, but rather we thank God that despite our sinfulness and limitations, God can make His Goodness shine through our actions. Virtue is not to be understood simply as what we do but rather what has been made possible by the gifts we have received.
The only true success that guarantees the happy ending is a life of discipleship where we manage to make a gift of ourselves to God and to others. Lent should help us in the process. Prayer, works of mercy, Mass and confession are all part of the formula for a good Lent.
As the fattest people on the planet and people most addicted to entertainment, a little mortification is in order. It is a way we say to God that we are sorry for our sins, and it is an opportunity to experience in some small way the hunger and deprivation of so many of our brothers and sisters. The money we save also affords us the possibility of giving alms to help relieve the hunger and misery in our world.
So, we begin our 40 days with the people of Nineveh and ashes on our forehead. We accompany Jesus who fasted and prayed for 40 days, and we join the 150,000 adults who are preparing to be received into the Catholic Church in the United States on Holy Saturday at the Easter Vigil. For all of us, Lent is a Baptismal Retreat and at Easter we will solemnly renew our baptismal promises. Lent is an important part of our spiritual journey. Now is the time to get on board.
Assuring you of my prayers, I am
Devotedly yours in Jesus,
Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley, OFM Cap.