Moses and Aaron led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. The people marched dry-shod across the Red Sea, because the power of God parted the waters for them. They passed over the sea, as a people united in a procession towards their goal.
The Passover. The Passover is a procession. People marching forward together, united by the power of God.
We keep especially-holy the forty days before the celebration of Passover. We do this in order to join in the procession. We want to take part in the liberation that God gives His chosen people.
The Hebrews marched toward the Promised Land of Israel, as a symbol. They represented the entire human race, redeemed from sin by the Christ, marching spiritually towards God. Lent draws us into that procession. For forty days we prepare ourselves spiritually to celebrate the ancient Passover of Israel as the great feast of our salvation in Christ.
How? What do we do through these forty days, to prepare ourselves?
1. We pray more. Because to march towards God, we need to pray. The holy procession of Passover is, above all, a prayer–our lifting of our hearts to God. 2. We give things up; we fast. And 3. We give things away. Because marching towards God requires letting go of everything else. The Israelites had to remove all leaven from their homes. Again, a symbol. We must remove from our lives all superfluous attachments to earthly things.
We take part in the great Passover procession by focusing on the true goal that we human beings have in life. God. Nothing less than God.
In Holy Baptism, Jesus initiated us into the divine mystery of His eternal procession to the Father. Lent teaches us that truly living means one thing: marching towards God.
Anyone ever looked out from Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee? It’s the southwestern-most ridge of the Appalachians, about the same latitude as the southern end of the Appalachian Trail.
You look down on the Tennessee River winding its way through the valley below. Dramatic history lies hidden in the soil, so to speak.
Like the decisive military action of the Civil War. The Confederates had put the Federal Army of the Cumberland on its heels here, in the fall of 1863. The Union soldiers in Chattanooga were cut-off and starving. But General Ulysses Grant found a way to get supplies into the besieged city, by stealth and stratagem.
The Union troops survived, and then marched toward Atlanta.
Or, buried even deeper in the dust of the valley: the archaeological remnants of other ancient civilizations that once lived and thrived here. There’s a simple memorial to the Cherokee Trail of Tears in downtown Chattanooga: A set of stone steps that leads… into the river.
Remember, man, that you are dust.
All this history, and more, lies hidden in the dust, so to speak, of one Appalachian valley. What lies hidden in us? In the dust that we are?
What lies hidden in our mortal flesh? Nothing less than this: the eternal God has called us to be His beloved children forever. We have a vocation unto undying life, the unending life of God’s powerful love. This mystery of life lies hidden in our now-mortal flesh.
Which means we have a Passover to celebrate. Our brother in this mortal flesh, Jesus Christ, has passed over from the valley of tears into the Kingdom of Light. Our life makes sense when we recognize it as a pilgrimage towards that Passover, Christ’s Passover.
In fact, that’s the only way that human life makes sense. Without Christ, we die meaninglessly on a big rock hurtling around a minor star in a vast, empty universe. With Christ: we march toward life. In Him, God Himself accepted our human death, in order to turn death into a door. The door that leads to the everlasting life of God.
So let’s prepare ourselves to celebrate Christ’s Passover. It’s in… how many days? Let’s pray, fast, and give alms in secret for forty days. Because what lies hidden in this mortal dust of ours is: life.
Nathaniel Russell, born in Rhode Island in 1738, had a great knack for organizing commercial shipping. He moved to South Carolina and married into a wealthy family. He built a grand house and entertained graciously. One of his daughters married the Episcopal Bishop. [SPANISH]
Russell’s Charleston home has become an evocative museum that takes you back two hundred years. Visiting the place gives you an intimate feel for how well-respected, prosperous city gentlemen lived. Russell was known as a scrupulously honest businessman, diligent in paying his taxes. He was altogether honorable.
Just one thing: He made a lot of his fortune by buying and selling other human beings as slaves. In 1772 he wrote to a fellow sea-merchant: “There have been a great many Negroes imported here this summer and many more expected. They continue at a very great price.”
Now: Should this properous, honorable South-Carolina gentleman have known better? Should his conscience have accused him for enriching himself by buying and selling people as if they were animals? Is it fair for us to apply our morals to a man who lived three centuries ago? After all, no civil law prohibitted his business. To the contrary, the laws of of South Carolina made it almost impossible to free a slave. The enslavement of Africans had become an established institution.
But a man who lived under Russell’s own roof knew better. The blacksmith, a slave named Tom. Tom Russell participated in the planning of a thwarted slave rebellion, led by the famous Denmark Vesey. Tom was hanged right alongside Vesey by the Charleston City Council in 1822. What motivated the would-be rebels? The idea that Holy Scripture teaches that slavery runs contrary to the laws of God.
You can’t erase God’s truth, no matter how hard you might try. Something blinded Nathaniel Russell to the obvious. He had built his comfortable house not just on sand, but on sin. The grave, detestable sin of human slavery ran like rainwater through the streets of his town.
But this Charleston gentleman was no rank, malicious villain. He only wanted what we want: material security, a comfortable life for himself and his family, beautiful things around him. His neighbors admired him greatly and sought his friendship. We can hardly imagine that, when he lay on his deathbed at age 82, in the year 1820, he suffered any pangs of conscience over his business dealings. The evil of slavery had become too familiar.
But at the very moment when the owner drew his last breath in his comfortable bed, down in the back yard, Tom the slave knew the truth–that he was no animal, and that his enslavement at this rich man’s hands was wrong. You can’t erase God’s truth.
Be merciful to us, O Lord! We sinners stumble through life with huge blinders on. For all we know, we oursleves may have graver evils to answer for than all the well-liked Nathaniel Russells of history. Like him, we could know better, if only we took the trouble to look into it–to study Your Holy Word, and make it the absolute rule of our lives.
Help us to purify our hearts and minds. We confess that we can never truly become good without Your help. We know we don’t deserve the grace of compunction and deeper conversion to the truth. But we beg for it anyway!
These days everyone demands “transparency.” Transparency in decision-making; transparency in government; “transparent” accounting. And why not? Honest people tend not to have something to hide.
But in the gospel at Holy Mass, the Lord tells us to keep secrets—namely, our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving during Lent. “Transparency” makes a nice buzzword. But we have to face the facts about the obscurity in which we find ourselves.
After all, we frequent church precisely to acknowledge that what we cannot see exceeds in greatness what we can see. We walk by faith–faith in divine mysteries.
At the font, when each of us received the sacrament of Baptism, everyone there saw the ritual. But only from heaven could they see the whole thing: the cleansing of the soul by Christ’s Precious Blood and the supernatural unification with His Body.
And what could be less “transparent” than the Mass? The angels see Jesus, risen from the dead, in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar. But we do not see Him with our eyes. This Catholicism thing is a pretty daggone obscure business.
Even more: Can I claim to be transparent to myself? Sure, I want the government to operate in a transparent manner. But do I operate in a transparent manner? I hardly understand the inner workings of my own appetites and desires. It takes a lot of work even to achieve enough clarity with myself to see how big a sinner I am.
But it’s not hopeless. All this obscurity is not meant to last forever.
The mysteries of our faith promise resurrection. Lord Jesus rose from the dead. In His risen Body, He possesses utter human transparency: Himself, body and soul, irradiated with divine light.
We believe in this. And we hope that we, too, will rise and share in that brilliant human transparency.
In the meantime, we struggle in obscurity. We pray in secret, fast in secret, and give alms in secret. Our Father above sees what is hidden. And He will repay our obscure sacrifices with the glory of His perfectly clear light.
Lent brings us together. Ash Wednesday brings us together.
Not that the Church doesn’t always come together. Church means ‘coming together,’ after all. The Lord brings us together in church year-round.
But we know that Ash Wednesday and Lent bring us together more. Because: If there’s a single day of the year that marks us as Christians–a single most important day of them all–then, of course, that day is…
And honest Christians know we need forty days of special effort to prepare. Forty days to “get it together” for the Holy Day of days, the day that represents eternal life.
So Ash Wednesday has brought us together, because all together we know we have to work for six weeks on getting it together.
How? Let’s listen to the Holy Father…
For all of us, then, the season of Lent in this Jubilee Year is a favorable time to overcome our existential alienation by listening to God’s word and by practicing the works of mercy. In the corporal works of mercy we touch the flesh of Christ in our brothers and sisters who need to be fed, clothed, sheltered, visited; in the spiritual works of mercy — counsel, instruction, forgiveness, admonishment and prayer — we touch more directly our own sinfulness.
The corporal and spiritual works of mercy must never be separated. By touching the flesh of the crucified Jesus in the suffering, sinners can receive the gift of realizing that they too are poor and in need.
Feeding, clothing, sheltering, visiting, counseling, instructing, forgiving, admonishing, and praying for each other–because we sinners need the help that comes from touching the flesh of the crucified Christ. Which is only as far away as the person closest to us who suffers.
One great thing for us to keep in mind: Lent contains graces, in and of itself, simply by virtue of what it is. Lent can mean many different things for many different people. But the one thing which Lent is, in and of itself: Our share in the graces won by Christ’s forty-day fast in the desert.
This consoles me, anyway. Since I have never been particularly “good at” Lent.
You might say, ‘No surprise there, Father! You’re not particularly good at anything.”
But that’s the beauty of the absolute fact of the grace of the forty days. We receive special divine help during the forty days of Lent, whether we have any “Lent skills” or not.
My biggest problem is: I am prepared to fast from food, sleep, talking, even e-mail. But don’t ask me to fast from Big-East basketball during Lent. Because I can’t do it.
Seriously, though: The Lord Jesus Himself consecrated these forty days for us by His fast. He won us Lenten graces by which we can overcome bad habits. He won us Lenten graces by which we can pray more, meditate more, intercede more for people who need our prayers.
Most important of all: By His fast—which He undertook for one reason, namely because He loved the Father—by His fast, kept out of love, Jesus won Lenten graces for us, by which, between now and Easter, we can learn to love better. We can love God better and love our neighbor better.
And we don’t even have to be “good at” Lent. He gives us these graces whether we are good at Lent or not.
Please forgive me. On Ash Wednesday I wind up exhausted, and random song lyrics run through my mind at inappropriate times.
All my beloved people bravely walking out into the world after Mass, with the diadem of mortality emblazoned on the brow. All I can think of is the refrain from E. Costello’s “I’ll Wear it Proudly,” from King of America:
If they had a ‘King of Fools,’ then I could wear that crown
And you can all die laughing because I’ll wear it proudly
This year, we go right from reading the Sermon on the Mount at Sunday Mass the past four weeks to reading from it again at Holy Mass today, to begin Lent. So, instead of calling this winter, “The Year of the Polar Vortex,” let’s call it the Winter of the Sermon on the Mount.
Speaking for myself, one thing I have noticed particularly, reading through the Lord’s sermon this year: His emphasis on the secret, the hidden, the currently invisible reality.
The spiritual salt that gives interior savor. The zeal to comply with the commandments even in our hidden thoughts and desires. The motivation for suffering and forgiving, rather than fighting and winning at all costs. The trust that sees the loving hand of God in all things. All invisible, at least for now. The central matter of the most famous sermon ever given: Invisible to our eyes.
The message with which we begin Lent every year, also taken from the Sermon on the Mount: Pray, fast, and give away your money in an invisible way. Put your money in the invisible bank. Make sacrifices on the invisible altar. Spend your time talking with the invisible listener.
Winter 2013-2014. I think we can hope that it is almost over. We won’t soon forget that we could have hosted the Winter Games right here in Virginia. But let’s make this winter go down first-and-foremost as the Winter of the Sermon on the Mount, the winter when we learned even better how to live for the invisible goal.
If you asked a priest: On which day of the liturgical year have you celebrated Mass in the most-crowded church?
Among the priests of the preceding generation, I think all would certainly say, Christmas or Easter.
But I would give you a different answer. I have celebrated Christmas and Easter Masses in some pretty crowded churches, to be sure. And Our-Lady-of-Guadalupe day—crowded. But when I think of the three or four most crowded Masses I have ever celebrated, they were all on the same liturgical day: Ash Wednesday.
Perhaps a generational change has occurred. To speculate about what precisely this change is—perhaps it is futile to do so. But I have an idea.
Times change; the world changes. Our sense of what kind of state the world is in—that changes, too. Customs, habits–even the way we speak, the words we use—all these change. They change at a level deeper than politics, deeper than the cable-news cycle can cover. A generation passes, and the continental plates under the surface of our psychological earth shift. We look around us, and we see a different world than people saw a generation ago.
On Christmas, we rejoice that, in this world, the divine light shines through the darkness. Amen. On Easter we wear pastels, and sing, and smell the flowers. This is a beautiful earth, full of promise! Indeed.
The truths of Christmas and Easter are always true. And a generation ago, for whatever reason, the optimistic sentiments of these liturgical days predominated in the world at large. I remember, when I was a kid, everybody wanted to buy the world a Coke, and keep it company. World peace seemed right around the corner.
Ash Wednesday, of course, has an altogether different tone. No pastels. And the optimism of faith lays shrouded in other emotions. We emblazon ourselves with crosses of mortal black. We quietly acknowledge: All is not well.
Our world is beautiful, sure. Hope springs eternal, sure. But, let’s face it: Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Buy the world a Coke? Teach the world to sing? Instead of “Love is Flowing Like a River,” the song should probably begin with: Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.
Maybe we could say this:
This Ash-Wednesday generation is distinguished by the following sentiment: Our beloved world has serious problems. Yes, there is great promise. Yes, we ourselves have promise. But the path towards realizing all our potential runs through a hard valley of penance and self-abandonment. The valley lays shrouded in darkness. We are not sure exactly how to follow the path. We might even go so far as to say that the human race, as a whole, appears not to know how to follow it. We need supernatural help. And we know that the only really reasonable way to start is to kneel down.
A well-known priest has made a kind of mini-series about Catholicism. In one of the episodes, he discussed atheism.
He made an interesting point: “The god that atheists think we believe in, and whom they reject—I don’t believe in him, either. They think we believe in some kind of distant architect of perfection who just wound the world up, like a clock, a long time ago, so that it could run its own course, all by itself. But we do not believe in such a god.”
We believe in the real God. The real God is infinitely harder to understand than a distant clock maker. He is so much greater than we are, so much greater than the world He has made, that He can transcend us completely and still be closer to us than we are even to ourselves.
So: If we think that Ash Wednesday and Lent involve making shallow promises to some kind of far-away god, who just wants me to lose a few pounds— If we think our religion rises or falls on how many diet Cokes I drink between now and Easter—well, maybe we shouldn’t even bother.
But if I am ready to start an adventure, an adventure that involves getting closer to the infinitely transcendent, thoroughly mysterious God Who loves this world enough to die on a cross to save it—if we are ready for that humbling thrill-ride of a Lent, we can make an excellent start together today.
Is it more noble to act virtuously for its own sake–as opposed to doing it for a reward?
Not sure. But God does not hesitate to promise a reward.
Give secretly, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
Pray secretly, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
Fast secretly, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
Maybe it is not noble. But we have the right to regard our humble, hidden acts of charity, religion, and penance as deposits. When we give something away quietly, we actually pay the sum to heaven. When we pray, we pay heaven. When we make a sacrifice, it’s a payment.
Maybe it doesn’t seem so noble to think this way, but it is what the Word of God says.
And these secret deposits in the heavenly bank—we do not make them out of noble selflessness. To the contrary: Christ says that we can and should expect full repayment.
God deals justly with us. We pay earthly cash by giving things away, we receive heavenly cash in return. We say earthly prayers humbly and quietly, we receive heavenly praise and glory in return. We renounce earthly goods without letting anyone know, we receive heavenly goods in the sight of angels.
Lent seems like a pretty good deal. Too good to pass up. A chance for some easy money. Make a few quiet deposits now, and the return on the investment…big-time profit.