Reflection for Ash Wednesday – March 1, 2017

Readings: Joel 2: 12-18; 2 Corinthians 5: 20-6:2; Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-18
Preacher: Gloria Ulterino

It was Ash Wednesday… almost 30 years ago now. I was at work in the parish office, and the phone rang. “Hi, Mom! I just wanted you to know I went to church today!” Her chipper voice conveyed the good news as much as the words themselves. It was my daughter calling from college. She was a freshman at the time, and she hadn’t darkened the door of Sunday Mass more than a few times since she’d arrived. But, it was Ash Wednesday. And something drew her there.

There’s something about Ash Wednesday, isn’t there? That day seems to attract more people than any of the designated “holy days.” Is it something we do just because we’ve always done it? Or, does that smudge on our forehead connect us to some deeper truth? Something, perhaps, about our mortality? Vulnerability? Our needs, limits, failures… and our need for Forgiveness, More, God, Someone to Count On, Meaning in Life?

A longing for life, for even the tiniest green shoot, when everything—at least in our neck of the woods—appears to be deader than a doornail? (For the word Lent does mean springtime.) What has seeped into the crevices of your consciousness, into your very bones about this day?

I can’t say for sure why my daughter was drawn to Church that day. But this much is true. Every year, we come. With our stories. Our losses and grieving. Our celebrations, as in a job promotion. Our sicknesses, or perhaps a cancer diagnosis. Our commitment to health, strength and weight loss. Yes, we come. I came that year, 30 years ago. But, did I really hear the words we always hear on Ash Wednesday? And the urgency pulsing through those words? Gather an assembly! “Proclaim a fast! …. We are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you, on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God! …. Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation!” No. Back then, I did not hear.

But this year is different. Social media—Facebook, tweets, all of it—has brought everyone into our living room, like it or not. This year the pain and suffering, hopes and dreams, chasms of division have been laid bare in our nation. This year the urgency vibrating through our readings cannot be avoided. Can you feel it? Can you hear it?

Don’t we know that there are people in power who wish us ill? Who would trigger a war with hardly a thought? Don’t we know that there are vast numbers of refugees sleeping in the cold? That the gulf between the haves and have-nots can no longer be ignored? This year is urgent. We must become ambassadors for Christ. We must remember whose we are, whose cross we bear, whose cross we wear on our foreheads, whose life we are given to help heal a broken nation and world. And yes, help heal our beloved Church, by honestly looking at our issues, so as to become a healing force for all.

This year we must pray. Daily. In secret. In quiet. Listening, listening for the God who created our hearts, our very being. Listening to the God who longs for those hearts. Listening as well to the human cries for justice that pierce the heavens. Then listening again to God’s nudges to become agents for healing and righting wrongs.

This year we must fast. From name-calling. From blaming and shaming. From pre-judgments, made hastily and harshly. From bullying. From any sense of superiority. From separating ourselves out from our neighbors, whether they live next door or halfway around the world.

This year we must give alms. A healing touch. A kind and compassionate word. A challenging word, an advocating action for anyone – anyone – who needs it most.

This year we must develop the tough discipline of returning hatred with love —not soft, mushy love but divine love— the kind that refuses to see an enemy in anyone and everyone. The kind of love insisted upon by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The kind of love that alone can create the Beloved Community of healing and reconciliation. The kind of love that can energize a people into working for health care for everyone. Into non-violently attacking the roots of poverty in the wealthiest nation on earth. Into facing head-on the many challenges to mold an inclusive and pastoral Church. Only then can disconnected human hearts be transformed into true ambassadors for Christ—Jesus, our Brother, whom we follow.

Ash Wednesday and the days that follow. Whatever has brought us here, from wherever we have come, the truth is this: We begin our annual disciplined time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We turn once again to see, hear, taste, and nourish ourselves with the Ultimate Source of Mercy. We are compelled to see and become the field hospital envisioned by Pope Francis—to be transformed into Mercy itself. With hearts staunch enough to hear the desperate cries of the wounded. With hands gentle enough to help heal those wounds. With feet strong enough to stay the course. All for the sake of our sisters and brothers, around the globe, at home, and in the Church. Yes, now is the acceptable time! Now is the day of salvation!

Gloria Ulterino
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