Seizing the Day of Salvation with our Whole Heart, Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Ash Wednesday
March 1, 2017
Joel 2:12-18, Ps 51, 2 Cor 5:20-6:2, Mt 6:1-6.16-18

 

To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 

 

The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • Today as we begin the Holy Season of Lent, we need to focus on far more than Lenten “practices,” but on the virtues, the attitudes, the interior dispositions with which the Lord wants us to perform those practices and everything else we do during this season and beyond. Today I’d like to ponder three essential dispositions.
  • The first is given to us by the Prophet Joe. in today’s first reading. Through him the Lord tells us, “Return to me with your whole heart. … Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God.” It’s not enough to pray, fast, and give alms heroically. Through each of these practices we’re called to rend our hearts completely. 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. In contrast to this, we have today’s Gospel verse, which describes a different disposition: “If today you hear the voice of the Lord, harden not your hearts.” This refers not merely to a totally hardened heart to God, but also a partially sclerotic one, one that responds to God’s voice, for example, not with “hardened soil by the wayside” but with superficial rocky soil or divided thorny soil. We often give God only part of our heart and spend the rest of it on other desires. That’s why we need this Lent. God wants us to return to him with the entirety of our affections.
  • And he’s acting, too. He’s not only calling us to return, but he wants to give us a heart transplant. By our own strength we can’t get out the stain of sin. That’s why we cry out in today’s Responsorial Psalm, “A clean heart create for me, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” We need a heart transplant. Our heart has been hardened by sin, by pride, by envy, by anger, greed, by laziness, by lust and gluttony, and we need God to replace it with a heart of flesh (Ez 36:36), a pure heart that sees God (Mt 5:8), that is the abode of his love, and that seeks to love him in all we do. The first step in that heart transplant is to recognize we’re sick, we need a doctor, and need to submit to surgery. That’s why we cried out together, from the youngest to the oldest, over and over again in the Psalm response, “Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.” What God wants to do in Lent is similar to what he did mystically with St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, when he took out her heart from her breast, submerged it within his burning Sacred Heart, and then returned it to her having purified it of all the dross. This is the heart transplant by which he wishes to give us a clean heart. That sums up all his divine work. In today’s epistle from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, we specify a little bit the purpose of Jesus’ incarnation that we pray about in the Collect (Opening Prayer) of Christmas Mass during the Day and repeat at the mixing of the water and wine in each Mass, that Christ took on our humanity so that we might share in his divinity. He does that through the “wondrous exchange” of hearts in love that St. Paul specifies: “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” He took on our humanity with all its sinfulness so that in return, in him, he might make us God’s own holiness, his own justice. This is the way Christ makes possible our full return.
  • The second fundamental disposition is a desire for, and follow-through on, the call to reconciliation. Today St. Paul says, “We are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” We are called in everything we do to reconcile our life with God, all of it. Parts of us are in communion with God, but parts of us are not. And so God sent his Son to reconcile the whole world to God and that needs to be first our desire with regard to God and secondly our desire with regard to others. This summons involves, obviously, the gift of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. But it also has to involve our reconciliation with other members of Christ’s body. And often that’s the most practical way after confession for us to hear and respond to this appeal: to become, like St. Paul, ambassadors of reconciliation, bringing people back into communion with God and seeking to reestablish communion with them ourselves. Lent is a time for us to forgive and seek forgiveness. If there’s any separation between us and others, Lent is the time to work on it. We’re ambassadors seeking peace, peace with God and peace with others, through receiving God’s forgiveness and paying it forward 70 times 7 times. There’s an interesting contrast, almost a superficial contradiction, between Joel and the Gospel. In Joel, God tells us, “Blow the trumpet in Zion. Proclaim a fast, call an assembly; Gather the people, notify the congregation; Assemble the elders, gather the children and the infants at the breast.” In the Gospel, Jesus says twice, “When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do.” The harmony of this tension is that we are called to blow trumpets, not for ourselves, but for others. We’re called not to have the attention on ourselves but on God and others. If we’re helping them gather, to fast, to follow the Lord, then we will almost assuredly be doing the same. This is second fundamental Lenten attitude: God wants us to reconcile fully with him and then to send us as ambassadors and agents of reconciliation with others.
  • The third essential disposition is likewise given to us by St. Paul. He tells us about the urgency of God’s Lenten call to repent and believe, “Now is the Day of Salvation.” Lent is a season of salvation. If we were on a deserted island and after a long time we heard the propellors of the rescue plane and then saw it landing with a pontoon to take us home, we would be filled with extraordinary joy. God does something even greater during Lent. God seeks to have us receive and live by the gift of the salvation he won for us. This is so great that we can’t defer on it any more than people on a deserted island would say to rescuers, “Hey, it’s a sunny day. Can you come back next week?” The sense of being rescued, of being saved, by God should fill this whole season with joy. Even if we have to do something strenuous to get into the rescue plane, even if we don’t like flying, we do it and do so with exhilaration. Some parts of Lent may be against the grain for us, but we do them with the joy of being led by the Lord on the path of redemption.
  • These three dispositions should have a particular influence on the main Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. These three great Lenten penitential practices are geared to helping us reorder our relationship with God (prayer), with others (almsgiving) and with our own appetites, hungers and desires (fasting). Jesus speaks to us in the Gospel 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.  Jesus summarizes the essential Christian difference of action by saying, “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them.” Many, he says, do good things in order to win the esteem and approval of others, so that others may think they’re good people. Jesus says that what is supposed to distinguish us is that we do them with purity of intention for God the Father, with his help, and as his beloved children, just like Jesus himself prayed, fasted and gave of himself for the Father’s glory and to fulfill the Father’s plans for our salvation. 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. We are to pray in our “inner room,” which refers to the “store room” that Jews would have in their houses, 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, seeking to hallow his name, desiring his kingdom to come, hungering to do his will and to become ever more like him. We’re likewise 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.
  • These three practices are meant to be done first with our whole heart. We’re called to pray with our full attention, hearing God’s whispered words as words to be done and loving them even if they challenge. We’re called to give alms with our whole heart, putting ourselves into what we’re giving. We’re called to fast not just with our stomachs but with our whole heart, seeking what God hungers for, as we’ll focus more on Friday.
  • They’re called to be done with a desire for reconciliation. Our prayer needs to be contrite and beg the Father for the grace to continue Christ’s mission to reconcile the whole world to him, beginning with those we’ve wronged or who have wronged us. We’re called to give alms as am ambassador, seeking to bring about this reconciliation through the bond of charity. We’re called to fast in a state of reconciliation, seeking to bring all our appetites into conformity with love of God and others.
  • The three practices are similarly meant to be done with the joy of salvation. “Give me back the joy of salvation!,” we cry out in the Psalm. What a joy prayer is, as God listens to us, and seeks to transform us in prayer to experience, even now, more fully the fruits of salvation. What a joy reconciliation is, reestablishing peace with God and with others. This is God’s greatest joy, as Jesus himself described in the parables of the lost sheep, coin and son (Lk 15). Finally what a joy fasting ought to be, as we gain self-mastery, as we leave the shackles of slavery to our appetites behind, and follow the Lord more freely and stoke our hungers ever more for the eternal banquet in which salvation will be fully secured.
  • Today we come to Mass praying, fasting and receiving Christ’s alms so that we might do this in memory of him. We come here with our whole heart, tearing from it whatever isn’t united with God, crying out for God’s mercy and being filled with joy that God has given us this chance. We come here prepared to journey with Christ for these 40 holy days, as he seeks to give us a clean, a new, a sacred heart and lead us through the Lent of Life to the eternal Easter.

 

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
JL 2:12-18

Even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.
For gracious and merciful is he,
slow to anger, rich in kindness,
and relenting in punishment.
Perhaps he will again relent
and leave behind him a blessing,
Offerings and libations
for the LORD, your God.
Blow the trumpet in Zion!
proclaim a fast,
call an assembly;
Gather the people,
notify the congregation;
Assemble the elders,
gather the children
and the infants at the breast;
Let the bridegroom quit his room
and the bride her chamber.
Between the porch and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep,
And say, “Spare, O LORD, your people,
and make not your heritage a reproach,
with the nations ruling over them!
Why should they say among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?’”
Then the LORD was stirred to concern for his land
and took pity on his people.

Responsorial Psalm
PS 51:3-4, 5-6AB, 12-13, 14 AND 17

R. (see 3a) Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
and of my sin cleanse me.
R. Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
For I acknowledge my offense,
and my sin is before me always:
“Against you only have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight.”
R. Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
A clean heart create for me, O God,
and a steadfast spirit renew within me.
Cast me not out from your presence,
and your Holy Spirit take not from me.
R. Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
Give me back the joy of your salvation,
and a willing spirit sustain in me.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
R. Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.

Reading 2
2 COR 5:20-6:2

Brothers and sisters:
We are ambassadors for Christ,
as if God were appealing through us.
We implore you on behalf of Christ,
be reconciled to God.
For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin,
so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.
Working together, then,
we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.
For he says:
In an acceptable time I heard you,
and on the day of salvation I helped you.
Behold, now is a very acceptable time;
behold, now is the day of salvation.

Gospel
MT 6:1-6, 16-18

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Take care not to perform righteous deeds
in order that people may see them;
otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.
When you give alms,
do not blow a trumpet before you,
as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets
to win the praise of others.
Amen, I say to you,
they have received their reward.
But when you give alms,
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.

“When you pray,
do not be like the hypocrites,
who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners
so that others may see them.
Amen, I say to you,
they have received their reward.
But 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.

“When you fast,
do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.
They neglect their appearance,
so that they may appear to others to be fasting.
Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.
But when you fast,
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.”