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Ash Wednesday

February 14, 2024
Mt 6:1-6, 16-18

Once, not too long ago, there was a moment in Mass when I realized that I “wanted credit” for a deeper-than-usual bow during the Creed. I wanted credit for being extra reverent after Holy Communion. I wanted someone to notice my generosity towards our parish Christmas family. I wanted credit for participation in all the “holy stuff” because if no one saw me doing it, did it really count? So, boy, does today’s Ash Wednesday Gospel speak to me!

As Christ says (three times!) in today’s reading, “Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.” Ouch. 

The question is, what should be our motivation when we pray, fast, and give alms? Am I  bowing deeply out of deep love for the Father? Am I giving generously out of compassion for our struggling neighbor? Am I doing the “holy stuff” because I want to be like Christ and take him out into our hurting world? 

Receiving ashes today may seem contradictory to our reading. After all, it is very public. But rather than us trying to “get credit” from others for a particular deed, the ashes are a public admission of our need for God’s forgiveness as fallen sinners. We are asked to “turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel.”

Thursday after Ash Wednesday

February 15, 2024
Lk 9:22-25

When I was going through some difficulties years ago, a friend told me, “Well, Jesus didn’t say, ‘Take up your featherbed and follow me.'” I laughed about it at the time, but the phrase stuck with me, and I use it often myself now as a reminder of just what the Gospel for today tells us: following Christ comes with a cost. Denying ourselves and taking up our cross daily–this doesn’t sound warm and comfortable. But that’s the point. Jesus was not promising an easy road. Today’s reading starts with him matter-of-factly telling his disciples that he will suffer, be rejected, and even killed. But also raised. 

Following Christ also comes with a reward, as he said, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” A “me first” approach will not cut it as disciples. Lent gives us another chance to get this right. Let us pray for the grace to deny ourselves and pick up that cross today, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. 

Friday after Ash Wednesday

February 16, 2024
Mt 9:14-15

Sometimes, we Catholics think we have it pretty rough when it comes to fasting. We are asked to fast on two days: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Fasting requires adults aged 18-59 (who are healthy, not pregnant, or not otherwise compromised) to have only one “regular-sized” meal and two meals that together don’t make a “regular-sized” meal. And that’s it. Our “give ups” for Lent may include abstaining from certain foods as a form of self-discipline, and we abstain from meat on Fridays, practices that are distinct from fasting, but we tend to lump them all together. 

So, with all this focus on fasting and abstinence, we might feel a little like we’re the disciples of John who asked why they “fast much,” but Jesus’ disciples don’t. Jesus did fast himself before his public ministry, and he taught his disciples how to fast (Mat 6:16-18), and yet during his ministry, neither he nor they fasted. So why did it seem inappropriate for the disciples to fast?

Jesus’s words indicate that fasting is a practice associated with mourning. And no one would fast with the groom at his wedding. Jesus is the groom, the disciples his guests, and his presence meant they were to celebrate. We don’t fast on Sundays because we celebrate his presence in the Eucharist!

During Lent, we fast (and abstain) as a form of penance, demonstrating our need for God’s transforming grace in our lives. Let us fast well in preparation for the celebration when we are reunited with Christ.

Saturday after Ash Wednesday

February 17, 2024
Lk 5:27-32

What did Jesus see when he looked at Levi? When other people saw him, they saw a traitorous extortioner bent on taking their money and lining his own pockets with the excess. Jesus knew what Levi’s occupation was and what tax collectors did and were capable of. But he saw something else. So he called him. And astonishingly, Levi left it all, got up and followed Jesus. 

What did Levi see in Jesus? I like to think he saw what he could become–a person for others. He threw an elaborate banquet in Jesus’ honor and invited his business associates (extortioners) and friends (sinners) along with Jesus and his disciples. Evangelization was happening! Levi invited his cohort to the table to have their lives transformed like his was. 

Jesus doesn’t just tell us we’re sinners and then go off and dine with the holy people. Instead, he wants to sit down (in their day, lie down), elbow to elbow, and spend time with us, getting to know us and us getting to know him. Repentance is a result of a relationship with Jesus, which makes it even more important for us to introduce others to him.