Monday, March 3, 2014

Give up, Take up, Lift up

Ash Wednesday is a most unusual day.  Indeed, it is the most unique work day of the year.  It is a singular spiritual experience marked by the following widespread occurrences:
  • People ordering their entire day around getting to church, as if honoring God is the absolute first priority of this day.
  • People filling church pews, as if the Son of God himself were going to be present.
  • People-acknowledging their fallen nature, their brokenness and even their sinfulness--expressing a desire for a deeper conversion of mind and heart; often the day is also marked by commitments for a Lenten journey to sacrifice sensual pleasures ("give up"), to hone better habits ("take up"), and/or selflessly to serve those in need ("lift up").
  • People publicly--albeit humbly--putting their faith on display, wearing their ashes as if they aren't ashamed to admit that their bodies are mere passing dust but that Christ has reached out to save their immortal souls for eternity.
Ash Wednesday is a day that speaks to Catholics who only visit a church once or twice a year.  It is a day that intrigues the ever-growing number of "nones," who self-identify as being not-affiliated religiously but who find the ashes somehow compelling.  So, as each of us strives to become better "everyday evangelizers," there seems to be at least three key questions worth considering at the beginning of Lent this year:

  1. How can Ash Wednesday and our communal Lenten journey spark a more profound conversion of my own heart?  In addition to its catchy theme, "Give up, Take up, Lift up," the USCCB offers a number of helpful resources for our consideration, including A Daily Lenten Calendar with suggestions and reflections (down-loadable), an invitation to Rediscover the Sacrament of Penance (Pope Francis says its courageous to confess!), and the traditional CRS Lenten "Rice Bowl" (which now comes with a slick new App).
  2. How can we help make Ash Wednesday and Lent 2014 a time of invitation and welcoming for the "non-insiders" who might wander into our churches looking for something more?  Perhaps it starts with a friendly smile.  Maybe it requires that we preview the parish calendar for upcoming events--e.g., parish mission, video and discussion series, guest speaker, social justice outreach--and ask the "newbies" if they have heard about the event.  After all, the Christian journey always begins with an invitation.  How about if we checked out the new major film, "Son of God," and used it as a conversation starter (have you heard about it? do you know where it's playing?)?
  3. How can we help make Ash Wednesday a more usual day--a day that is more the norm than the exception?  Maybe we need to keep the "nobody's perfect" welcome sign as a permanent fixture in our church windows.  Walking around with ashes on our foreheads is a helpful reminder of how we ought to start every day: It is our sinfulness, not our perfection, that makes us eligible for the everlasting mercy of God revealed in Jesus; it is our willingness to let God save us, not our frantic efforts to save ourselves, which has to come first.  Perhaps we need to keep the Church doors open all day, so people have a chance to make a visit to the Mysterious Presence which they somehow sense in the tabernacle.  Someone is always waiting to rejoice at our homecoming and to offer us a fresh start.
Of course, Lenten sacrifice is also linked to our focus on the preferential option for the poor.  This may indeed be the best way to make us more credible witnesses to Christ.  What if each day of Lent had the same focus as Ash Wednesday:  that is, walking together as we reach out to others who are hungry or hurting or longing for wholeness?! 

After all, it is by Christ's poverty that we become rich, and our Lord's encounter with the rich young man is paradigmatic for the way he speaks to us today: "Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, 'You are lacking in one thing.  Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me" (Mk 10:21).