Pope: Lent breathes live into world asphyxiated by sin

By Junno Arocho Esteves
ROME (CNS) – Lent is a time to receive God’s breath of life, a breath that saves humanity from suffocating under the weight of selfishness, indifference and piety devoid of sincerity, Pope Francis said.
“Lent is the time to say no to the asphyxia born of relationships that exclude, that try to find God while avoiding the wounds of Christ present in the wounds of his brothers and sisters,” the pope said March 1 during an Ash Wednesday Mass.
Pope Francis celebrated the Mass after making the traditional Ash Wednesday procession from the Benedictine monastery of St. Anselm to the Dominican-run Basilica of Santa Sabina on Rome’s Aventine Hill.
After receiving ashes on top of his head from Cardinal Jozef Tomko, titular cardinal of the basilica, the pope distributed ashes to the cardinals, his closest aides, some Benedictines and Dominicans.
He also distributed ashes to a family and to two members of the Pontifical Academy for Martyrs, which promotes the traditional Lenten “station church” pilgrimage in Rome.
Lent, he said, is a time to say “no” to “all those forms of spirituality that reduce the faith to a ghetto culture, a culture of exclusion.”
The church’s Lenten journey toward the celebration of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection is made on a road “leading from slavery to freedom” and “from suffering to joy,” he said.
“Lent is a path: It leads to the triumph of mercy over all that would crush us or reduce us to something unworthy of our dignity as God’s children.”
The ashes, while a symbol of humanity’s origin from the earth, the pope said, is also a reminder that God breathes new life into people in order to save them from the suffocation of “petty ambition” and “silent indifference.”
“The breath of God’s life sets us free from the asphyxia that so often we fail to notice or become so used to that it seems normal, even when its effects are felt,” the pope said.
The Lenten season, he continued, is a “time for saying no” to the asphyxia caused by superficial and simplistic analyses that “fail to grasp the complexity of problems” of those who suffer most.
“Lent is the time to say no to the asphyxia of a prayer that soothes our conscience, of an almsgiving that leaves us self-satisfied, of a fasting that makes us feel good,” the pope said.
Instead, Pope Francis said, Lent is a time for Christians to remember God’s mercy and “not the time to rend our garments before evil but rather make room in our life for the good we are able to do.”
“Lent is the time to start breathing again. It is the time to open our hearts to the breath of the One capable of turning our dust into humanity,” the pope said.
(Follow Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju.)

Ash Wednesday: Ancient tradition still thrives in modern times

By Carol Zimmermann
WASHINGTON (CNS) – In more ways than one, Ash Wednesday — celebrated March 1 this year – leaves a mark.
That’s because not only are Catholics marked with a sign of penitence with ashes on their foreheads, but the rich symbolism of the rite itself draws Catholics to churches in droves even though it is not a holy day of obligation and ashes do not have to be distributed during a Mass.
Almost half of adult Catholics, 45 percent, typically receive ashes – made from the burned and blessed palms of the previous year’s Palm Sunday – at Ash Wednesday services, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
Parish priests say they get more people at church that day than almost any other – excluding Christmas and Easter – and the congregations are usually much bigger than for Holy Thursday or Good Friday services.
“Virtually every parish that I’ve worked with will have more people come to Ash Wednesday than almost any other celebration,” said Thomas Humphries, assistant professor of philosophy, theology and religion at St. Leo University in St. Leo, Florida.
“We talk about Christmas and Easter as certainly being the most sacred and most attended events during the year, but Ash Wednesday is not even a day of obligation. In terms of liturgical significance, it’s very minor, but people observe it as overwhelmingly important,” he said in a Feb. 17 email to Catholic News Service.
Humphries said part of the Ash Wednesday draw is the “genuine human recognition of the need to repent and the need to be reminded of our own mortality. Having someone put ashes on your head and remind you ‘we are dust and to dust we shall return’ is an act of humility.”
He also said the day — which is the start of Lent in the Latin Church — reminds people that they are not always who they should be and it is a chance to “stand together with people and be reminded of our frailty and brokenness and of our longing to do better.”
“This practice is particularly attractive to us today because it is an embodied way to live out faith, to witness to Christian identity in the world, ” said Timothy O’Malley, director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame, where he also is a professor of New Testament and early Christianity.
He said that’s the only way to explain why millions of people identify themselves “as mortal sinners for an entire day.”
Jesuit Father Bruce Morrill, the Edward A. Malloy professor of Catholic studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tennessee, thinks the appeal of Ash Wednesday is partly because participants receive a “marker of identity” as Catholics.
The day also has rich symbolism, he said, of both flawed humanity and mortality. He pointed out that even though a large percentage of Catholics do not go to confession they will attend this very penitential service because they “get a sense of repentance and a kind of solidarity in it.”
“Clearly it touches on a deep sense of Catholic tradition in a way few other symbols do,” he told CNS Feb. 17.
For many, it also links them to childhood tradition of getting ashes. It also links them, even if they are unaware of its origins, to an ancient church tradition.
The priest said the use of ashes goes back to Old Testament times when sackcloth and ashes were worn as signs of penance. The church incorporated this practice in the eighth century when those who committed grave sins known to the public had to do public penitence, sprinkled with ashes. But by the Middle Ages, the practice of penance and marking of ashes became something for the whole church.
Ash Wednesday also is one of two days, along with Good Friday, that are obligatory days of fasting and abstinence for Catholic adults – meaning no eating meat and eating only one full meal and two smaller meals.
The other key aspect of the day is that it is the start of the 40 days of prayer, fasting and almsgiving of Lent.
“Ash Wednesday can be a little bit like New Year’s Day,” Father Mike Schmitz, chaplain for Newman Catholic Campus Ministries at the University of Minnesota Duluth, told CNS in an email. He said the day gives Catholics “a place to clearly begin something new that we know we need to do.”


Prayer, fasting, almsgiving: hallmarks of Lent

By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
Ash Wednesday is one of the most recognizable religious observances in the Catholic World and beyond. Not only is it something ‘those Catholics do,’ but a ritual marking the beginning of Lent that is gradually expanding into the broader Christian world. Last year, later in the day, I was doing some food shopping and the attendant at the checkout counter asked me, “what y’all got on your forehead?” I said it’s holy dust, a powerful symbol in the Catholic Church for Ash Wednesday and added that the person behind me, who was not Catholic, was also marked with ashes, so be careful because it appears to be spreading. Her look was one of utter confusion.
The ashes, the remains of the previous year’s palms, are significant because they are a stark reminder that the wages of sin are death, a compelling command to repent and believe in the Gospel, the first of Jesus’ demands in his public ministry. This ritual follows the Ash Wednesday gospel from Saint Matthew (6:1-18) that erect the pillars of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, the engine of conversion in the heart of the Sermon on the Mount.
The Lord transformed the traditional religious practices of the Old Law not only for a 40-day season, but as a way of life. This is evident with his straightforwardness, when you pray, when you fast, when you give alms. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus, introduced the new order of creation in God’s plan of salvation and prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the living proof that we don’t entertain empty rituals, even with holy dust.
These pillars require a selflessness and discipline that infuse life into the great commandments to love God with our whole heart, mind, soul and strength and our neighbor as ourselves. Recall that small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life (Matthew 7:14) and that God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power, love and discipline (2Timothy 1,7), in season and out of season (2Timothy 4,2).
Each of the pillars has a length and height, breath and depth that cover the world and every living person on it. Prayer arises out of our faith and is evidence that we love God and daily want to be in conversation and communion with him in the name of Jesus and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Prayer has many faces and all approaches find their ultimate meaning in the Eucharist, the source and summit of all prayer. Essentially we are saying to God that we do love you with all we’ve got and we will find the time in the midst of our responsibilities, burdens, pursuits and distractions to be more present to the One who is omnipresent. We can set the alert on our iPhone, Fitbit, or on other devices to remind us that the Lord is speaking and asking, can you hear me now? Who can doubt that prayer has a 365(6) day season each year?
Fasting clearly is the most under-appreciated and under-utilized of the three pillars of transformation. The Catholic Church through the ages rightly has focused on moderation during the days of fasting and abstinence, mindful of the words of the Lord to the tempter at the end of his 40-day fast that man and woman do not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. (Matthew 4:4) A more intentional discipline toward our culinary consumption every day would be ideal, doing much more than promoting healthy living, as dignified as this is. Pope Benedict offers us the supreme rationale. The ultimate goal of fasting is to help each of us to make the complete gift of self to God. This is the beginning and the end of fasting and it is not only a matter of food control, but of fasting and abstaining from all of our idols and there are legions. Fasting from “recreational” drugs and alcohol (addiction, a disease, offers no latitude), from gambling, immoral sexual indulgence, pornography, excessive television, our gadgets that impede our relationships, fasting from anger and laziness, envy and pride, greed and cynicism.
The list can go on, but the fasting that is life-changing permeates all aspects of our being, right sizing all that is a blessing in our lives and liberating us from all that can harm us or another, or weaken our relationship with God. Obviously, this is not a 40-day enterprise, but a way of life that Lent can renew for us.
Almsgiving: So that we do not stall at the threshold of our own self improvement or preoccupations, the third pillar allows us to place our prayer and fasting at the service of the Lord who teaches us to love God, our neighbor and ourselves. Almsgiving is a generosity of spirit, a magnanimity, that allows us to serve and to share, to forgive and to respond to the needs of others in our personal lives and in our world, in a manner that can only come from the mind and heart of Jesus Christ revealed through our prayer and fasting.
In last Sunday’s gospel from the Sermon on the Mount we heard Jesus say that we are to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. It is not a matter of not making mistakes, or of being on our game each and every day, but in light of all that Jesus is teaching during the Sermon on the Mount, it is the path of self emptying, a dying to self, like the seed that falls to the earth (John 12,24), so that we can bear the fruit of the Kingdom.
As we arrive at the threshold of Lent and prepare to receive the ashes, physically or spiritually, may this mark on our foreheads be for us an invitation to turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel as our standard for living. But, let’s enjoy also a serving of King Cake, a Mardi Gras specialty that I’ve come to relish since moving to Mississippi. In moderation, of course.