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.
Prayer, fasting, almsgiving: hallmarks of Lent
By Bishop Joseph Kopacz