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Now is the Acceptable Time, Now is the Day of Salvation

As Catholics we now find ourselves at the beginning of the Lenten season.  The words in the above title are taken from the Readings on the Mass of Ash Wednesday.  I must admit that these words have always spoken to me in a very strong way.  Having come through the time of Pre-Lent, a time of consideration that we need repentance in our lives, that we need to increase our prayer, fasting and giving, that we need to turn aside from our own way in the world and rather turn to Christ’s way, we now come to the day of Ash Wednesday, the commencement of the Lenten Season, and now is the time to put into action all that we have considered.

On Ash Wednesday, we hear in the Book of the Prophet Joel concerning the call to repentance and prayer.  The words that are read are a response to the lament of things being not right for the people of Israel.  In the year 2018 as well, we also know that things are not right.  There are certainly difficulties within our world, and while we may not be responsible for them in a direct way, certainly they have had an effect on us.  Because things are not right within our world, they reflect themselves in things not being right for us as well.

This may be even more true in the world of 2018 than it was at any time in history.  Because of the internet and the 24 hour news cycle we are bombarded with conflict spurred on through various social and political opinions.  We are confronted with so many loud voices that we have no time to reflect on how these difficulties should be dealt with in our own lives as well as to think about what then each of us should do.

The Prophet Joel, at the beginning of the Lenten Season, reminds us that our connection to the Lord, brought about because we are a loved creation of Almighty God, must be the beginning of all of our dealings and a help in the solution of all of our difficulties.  Joel reminds us to put this relationship first in calling us to “Proclaim a fast, call an assembly; notify the congregation, assemble the elders, gather the children.” (Joel 1:14)  He calls us to gather together in support of one another and to prayer that we may reestablish, repair and renew our relationship with Almighty God.  It is this we are called to in seeking repentance within our lives.

As a call at the beginning of the Lenten Season, St. Paul also calls us in his second letter to the Corinthians.  “We implore you, in Christ’s name, be reconciled to God!” (2 Cor 5:20)  While we often think of the word “reconcile” only in terms of the forgiveness of sins in the Sacrament of Penance, it is really a term that goes beyond this.  It begins with the forgiveness of sins, but continues on to creating a harmony and compatibility between our lives and the ways of God in the world today.  “Reconciliation” is not then something that happens in one act when we receive ashes upon our foreheads, or when we kneel in seeking the Sacrament of Penance during Church or a penitential devotion, but rather reconciliation is a state of mind, an attitude where we seek to bring our thinking, our lives and our entire way of life into accord with the will and the ways of God, shown to us through Jesus Christ.

But as we so often do within our lives we ask, How can I start?  How do I begin?  It is especially here that we listen to the words of St. Paul, “As your fellow workers we beg you not to receive the grace of God in vain.  For he says, ‘In an acceptable time I have heard you; on a day of salvation I have helped you.’  Now is the acceptable time!  Now is the day of salvation!” (2 Cor 6:1-2)  For Catholic Christians then it would seem that Ash Wednesday, not the New Year is the day of resolutions.  But it is so much more than just a day to make mindless self-help declarations.  It calls us to truly reform our lives and reconcile ourselves to God.

The Church, following the way of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, has placed before us what is needed to help us to lay aside the sinful and distracting ways which lead us away from God.  It begins with the acknowledgement that this is something that we truly need in our lives, an acknowledgement that we must turn away from allowing the things of the world to rule us and rather let God be in control.  The ashes we place on our foreheads speak so strongly of this realization and I even think that it is something deeply ingrained within us.  Ash Wednesday has always had a very strong pull for many people in their religious journey.  I receive many calls and am asked on many occasions during this time of year where someone can “get ashes.”  But we also need to acknowledge that this is not the conclusion of the journey, but rather only the first step.

Our Lord also calls us to increased prayer, fasting, giving and reconciliation to God.  Each of these things, on the surface can be looked at simply as Lenten disciplines, but actually they each call us to a reorientation of our lives, our actions and our motives.  These disciplines each help us to align ourselves to the way of God in the world.

Fasting (or more appropriately, abstaining) is certainly a part of the Lenten disciplines that many of us undertake during this season.  We may give up meat, on Fridays and possible also on Wednesdays.  Some will also take the further step of “giving up” something for the entire 40 days of Lent, like fasting on candy or soda.  While these disciplines are certainly laudable practices, it is also important that we take the next step.  We fast or abstain to make sure that we do not become slaves to our own desires, but rather seek God’s ways first.  Our eating is something that is such an important and ever-present part of our lives.  Not only do we plan and consume our three meals a day, but food is a topic that often fills our days as well, “What did you have for breakfast?  Do you want to grab a quick bite for lunch? What’s for dinner tonight?”  Even more so now we can easily consume food items from many difficult cultures and eat a different meal for many days in a row never having to make it ourselves.  And then even more if we don’t want to leave our house we can have any manner of food delivered, either already made or in a nice little container just waiting for us to assemble it.

As you can see, our eating can quite quickly become an obsessive part of our living where every desire can be quickly filled.  The fasting and abstinence of Lent allows us to reorient a part of our lives.  Yes we can certainly enjoy the food choices we have, but it cannot overtake all of our lives.  And then of course this reminds us that sometimes there are also other things that might take the same role.  To name just a few, it might be drinking or smoking, a gambling habit, our technology, and I’m sure there are many, many other things that could be added.  While some of these things may not be bad in and of themselves, anything can be destructive when it takes over our lives.  Fasting or abstinence allows us the opportunity to make a correction to reorient ourselves as God’s children, not the children of some manmade item or obsession.

With this we can then move on to the Lenten practice of increased prayer.  I always like to say “increased” prayer for the reason that I hope that at least some prayer is a part of the life of every Catholic Christian and also that I don’t think that there can be any point where I would say that anyone prays enough.

Once we realize that the direction of our lives and its emphasis must be focused on God, then we must come to know and listen to the God we follow.  And this too must be accomplished in many different ways.  There is the communal prayer of our parish families during Holy Mass and other devotions, which allow us to gather together and seek God as a family in Christ.  There is the prayer we pray together with another, such as a parent and child, or two spouses, which allows those relationships to grow in love and commitment.  There is also private personal prayer which allows us to know that we are never alone, but that God is always with us.  Each of these is important and they show us that God loves each and every one us, but that He also loves us as a family together, who love each other as He loves us.

Lastly we move on to the Lenten discipline of giving.  Having reoriented ourselves away from our own lives and selfish desires and turning to Almighty God, having grown in a knowledge of the love of God and His wanting us to be an integral part of the Christian family, in our own families as well as our parish families, we now respond to this love in acts of giving.  Now I am sure that giving is already a part of our Christian experience.  We may put a few dollars in the basket at church on Sunday and also give here and there to some worthy causes, but the Lenten season and our response to the love of God calls us to look beyond this.  It calls us to give some attention to our giving and to do it in an intentional and sacrificial way.  We must support our parish churches, not only through increased giving in the offering baskets, but also in finding other ways that we can be of service to the building up of the Kingdom of God on earth within our parishes.  We must also find ways that we can reach out, to others in our families, to our neighborhoods and to our communities that our Christian works of love and charity can be even further spread.

There is so much that we can focus our attention on in this Lenten season that we must start now so that we can further unite ourselves with Jesus, especially as we join ourselves with His ultimate giving of Himself upon the cross.  Yes, we must take up the Lenten disciplines of fasting, prayer and giving, but we must also do them with the full intention of following the way of Jesus Christ in the world.  Now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation.

 

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