At the time of writing, a few days before Ash Wednesday, it has been reported that a parish in the West of Ireland will be offering ‘drive-thru Ashes!!’ I see the funny side to this and I can understand it’s appeal. It comes as no surprise that it has been described as ‘cool’ and ‘moving with the times’. I get this but it’s not the full story. I appreciate as you read this you will have either received your Ashes, or not. You may be surprised to hear that I feel very strongly about Ash Wednesday.
Actually I believe we should think very carefully about receiving Ashes. Do we really think about what it means? For many there is a bit of it connected with being proud to be a Catholic. Of course this is a good thing, if it has real substance. For me having Ash on my forehead says two things: it says I am a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, and I know, and am grateful he suffered and died out of love for me, and the whole world, it also says that I am serious about Lent.
What does being serious about Lent mean? It means that I understand it is a very important period in the year for the community of faith to which you and I belong. It is the period of preparation leading up to Easter. During this period we are called to fast, pray and give alms to the poor. Unless we are going to do something for Lent the danger is that receiving the Ashes may be not much more than a hollow gesture. It is important to note what is said by the priest or minister as he or she gives the Ashes. ‘Repent and believe the Good News’ or ‘Turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel’. If we remember this a key question arises: does it make sense to put Ashes on a baby or a little toddler?
What sin have they? For that matter is it appropriate to place Ashes on someone terminally ill? Is their suffering not enough for them? Surely we would not ask them to do penance? In other words it is good to consider the meaning and value of some of these important and beautiful things we have been doing for years.
The question of motivation is always a good one to reflect on. Once again sometimes we do something that may well may be a good thing to do, but we do it for the wrong reason. An example of this would be to treat Lent like an extension of Weight Watchers!!
When we consider the meaning of these things it is also good to check why we do them. Our motivation, our reason for doing something is often at least as important as to actually doing the deed itself. For example why give up alcohol, or cut back on food? Clearly to control the amount of alcohol or food we take is a good thing in itself. However Lent is something different. If we want to be sure that our Lenten observance or promise is a good one then all we need to do is ask what or where am I focussed on? If our focus is on losing weight or saving money from not buying alcohol, then clearly we are focused on ourselves. Our Lenten focus should be on Jesus or at least the poor. Of course if our focus is on the Lord or people less fortunate than ourselves, and as a result of that we lose weight, or learn to have better control when it comes to alcohol, then this is also good.
In the past I often felt it was better, as in more positive, to do something for Lent rather than give up something for Lent. Now I think it’s probably good to have a mixture of both. Many people will for example try very hard to stop smoking. Clearly this is good for their health, but we can do more with this. For example, in the struggle to stop there is an opportunity to pray. This prayer can be offered for people who are sick or indeed the person who is struggling with the cigarettes could pray for themselves, perhaps for the gift of perseverance. Of course prayer can always be offered as atonement for our past sins. Put simply we can pray for forgiveness.
It is difficult to think of Lent and not think of Trocaire! It is an understatement to say Trocaire is involved in good work. Actually Trocaire is involved in Gospel work, and to support Trocaire is to support the work that Jesus calls us to. During these coming weeks of Lent let us keep our attention on Jesus, and remember that he was tempted. Let us remember that his suffering is directly related to our sins. Therefore a key word to keep in front of us during Lent is conversion. Conversion is rarely an event or a one off, but rather a process. Indeed conversion can often start one thinking, but conversion is only incomplete when we have confessed, been truly sorry and are now presenting as eager to start again.
Here in St. Matthew’s we have the opportunity to come to Mass either in the morning at 10 or in the evening at 7.30pm. Please see our special programme for Fridays during Lent. I would be delighted if you could join us for even part of it.