The over-stuffed parking lot forces me to park far from the front door. The already long walk, while tugging along a distracted toddler, is now even longer. Luckily I am on time, for once, even a little early. As we stroll along, I am struck by the feeling of going to a family gathering. All around me, people are unfolding from cars and vans and streaming toward the same destination. Mass.
Today is Ash Wednesday. It is not a holy day of obligation yet so many people have chosen to come, to receive, to remember. The sheer number of them moves me. I am not alone. We are not alone. We are one big family in faith.
Father begins his homily by saying you don't have to be Catholic to receive the ashes. Anyone of any faith can come to receive this tangible reminder of our origin and our destiny. From ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Yet Father goes on to say that the whole point of Lent is revealed in the phrase he utters as he swipes the blackened cross upon each forehead,
"Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel." Mark 1:15
How are we to do that in our busy lives and secular world? Through prayer, fasting and almsgiving (making voluntary contributions to the needy). These three ribbons of Lent, when braided together with focus and special intensity for the next 40 days, can become a strong cord tying us to Christ, conforming our daily lives more to the Gospel-driven life we are called to lead. These three ribbons are outlined in detail in Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18:
"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. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
"When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
"When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But 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."
Jesus does not say not to do these things, he is clarifying for us how to do these things. Lent is not a time for us to draw attention to our good works or to do them for others to see. We are to do them in the secrecy of our hearts so that our most hidden and sacred space can become filled with the peace of Christ. It is our joy, our peace and our humility that draw people toward God not our self-promotions.
As Father Vincent Nagle expressed it in his meditation on The Graces of Lent:
"Jesus tells us to pray and give where others cannot see us praying and giving so that we not lose track of the entreaty coming from our heart and thus lose track also of the answer, Jesus himself. The more our sacrifices are secret, the more there must emerge our secret heartfelt reason for them."
This can be the most challenging aspect of Lent. Continually asking myself, "Why am I doing this?" What is the deepest truth about myself that these acts of sacrifice, abstinence and self-denial reveal? I will fail. I will fall. I am human, ash, dust. Still, God quietly invites me, little me, to be made new in him, day by day, braiding, tying, strengthening myself in his word.