Thursday, 27 February 2014

Ash Wednesday - Year A

Joel 2:12-18; 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6.16-18

As once again we set out on the very serious journey of Lent I propose that this year we begin as people who are miserable, gloomy, sad, and angry.

Firstly, let us be miserable and gloomy. St James exhorts us in Chapter 4 of his letter: be miserable instead of laughing, gloomy instead of happy. And why does he urge us to do this? Because of our wretched condition; in other words, the wretched condition of our souls.

Lent is a time for taking stock of our spiritual condition, a time for looking at the state of our soul. How many of us can be truly happy and satisfied with their spiritual state? James says: Look at your wretched condition, and weep for it in misery; be miserable instead of laughing, gloomy instead of happy.

And let us be sad with the sadness of the prophet Nehemiah – when he heard from Hanani: ‘...the walls of Jerusalem are in ruins and its gates burnt down.'

On hearing this Nehemiah sank down and wept; and for several days he mourned. And then he did something very interesting. He said: ‘God of heaven ... I and my father's House have sinned. We have acted very wickedly towards you: we have not kept the commandments...’

What a tragic picture: the walls of Jerusalem are in ruins and its gates burnt down - and it's my fault! What a sorrowful sight that must have been and let us see, right now, how fallen Jerusalem might also be an image of our soul. This Lent let us be sad, like Nehemiah weeping. Only let us weep for what our sins have done to the city of our soul.

Thirdly let us be angry, with the anger of St Isaiah the Solitary, one of the desert fathers of the fourth century– who wrote this surprising statement: Without anger a man cannot attain purity: he has to feel angry with all that is sown in him by the enemy.

The truth is that our souls are like the field in which some enemy has come and sown weeds. As Jesus said in Mt 13:28: Some enemy has done this. And we have to get angry with this enemy and with the evil tendencies he has sown in our hearts.

I felt this anger very strongly when I was still smoking and just couldn't give up. Then one day I looked at that little tube of tobacco I held between my fingers and said angrily, ‘You are not going make a monkey out of me anymore!’ And I gave up.

This was the anger James and John felt when the Samaritans rejected Jesus (Lk 9:54). They wanted to call down fire from heaven on them.

And this was the anger Isaiah the Solitary felt when he thought of his brother monks being tempted to accept riches. He cried out angrily: Let us call down destruction upon all such thoughts and thankfully live in poverty.

So this Lent, be angry with the inclination to sin and the weakness you see the demon has sown within you. Don’t stand for it any longer; shake your fist at it and stare it down with all the strength you have. Our strategic goal is purity of heart - the removal of all that would spoil our likeness to Christ and so make our soul beautiful and pleasing to him.

Once we are miserable, gloomy, sad and angry about the little progress we have made in the spiritual life we are ready to go to Confession and then to begin the Lenten journey with prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

Be ready at every hour, for you do not know when the thief will come; do not let him come and find you asleep (cf. Mt 24:42-43).

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