Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Return to God With All Your Heart

March 9, 2011
Ash Wednesday

By Colleen O’Sullivan

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. (Joel 2:12-13)

We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:20b)

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…When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees you in secret will repay you…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.” (Matthew 6:1-2a, 6, 17-18)

Have mercy on me, God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense. (Psalm 51:3)

It’s Ash Wednesday. Lent has begun, the season when we prepare ourselves to share in our Lord’s Passion and to celebrate his Resurrection on Easter. Lent is about conversion or, the prophet Joel says, returning to the Lord with all our heart. Not that this wouldn’t be a good thing to do any day of the year, but Lent is the season when we particularly focus on turning from our sinfulness to being reconciled to God.

When I was a kid, I remember all my friends comparing what they were giving up for Lent, as if it were a sort of spiritual competition. Our Old Testament and Gospel readings remind us, however, that this isn’t meant to be a showy, external sort of exercise, but an interior turning toward a deeper relationship with the Lord. When I think about giving something up for Lent, I am reminded of my first silent retreat. About 30 years ago, I went on a 3-day, directed retreat at a Jesuit retreat center in Pennsylvania. The first day, the silence was excruciating. I could hardly think about anything except how quiet it was. I didn’t care how nice the weather was or how beautiful the grounds were surrounding the retreat house. I longed like an addict for the sound of a radio, a television or any conversation. (There were no iPods, iPads or Blackberries back then.) By the time I went home, though, I saw the silence in a different light, as a gift. Removing all the extraneous noise in my life created more space for God and prayer. If you choose to give something up for the next 40 days, think about what would help you create or enlarge your inner prayer space.

Begin your Lenten observance by going to Mass today and allowing yourself to be marked with ashes. They are an ancient symbol of repentance. They remind us that we are mortal creatures, who will one day stand before God and be judged. When you come home, look in the mirror and remember that this is the season for returning to the Lord, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and rich in kindness.