Today is Ash Wednesday, when many Christians mark the season of Lent by attending Mass and receiving Ashes on our foreheads. The ashes remind us of our mortality and of our sin, of our human limit. As human beings, we are what Genesis names as a mixture of dust and divine breath. Today, we remember especially the “dust” side of things: we are mortal and without God, are really nothing at all.
In Lent, we are asked to undertakes spiritual practices of penitence including fasting, increased prayer, and charitable giving to the poor. We might especially at the start of the season begin by noting where we have fallen short, and where we have sinned–another side of our “nothingness” without God. As a colleague of mine, James Keenan SJ phrases it, sin is about a failure to love. We can each think of ways that we have failed to love individually. Such a failure to love can go beyond what wrongs we have done to also include, in what situations have I been empowered and capable of acting for the good but failed to do so. Is there a person in need of mercy to whom I have not shown it? Have I been self centered when I have been called to love the other and attend to his or her needs? Or have I failed to treasure myself as God’s beloved in some way and so to exhibit proper self love? Where has my fear stood in the way of my love, and especially of loving others in freedom?
While some of our failures are individual, there is also corporate sin to consider: how has my community, my city, or my country participated in evil, and have I cooperated with it, or done anything to resist it? Do I act in ways that express care for the poor, that are either explicitly or implicitly racist or biased, or that exploit others? Do I care for the planet? While none of us can “save the world” (only God can), we also have our part to play in community. Where have I loved, and where have I been capable of acting and yet failed to act?
The daily readings give us advice for how to undertake these kinds of Lenten examination. First, they emphasize the mercy of God. We are not to look at our shortcomings with the harshness of a taskmaster or with any kind of self hatred. Instead, we are to gently examine where we have fallen short in the context of God’s abiding mercy and unconditional love. God’s love is always bigger than any of our failings, and God always looks at us with that love, because God’s love is the very essence of who God is and must be. Consider how a (good) parent loves a child despite his or her mistakes as they learn how to grow in love and care of self and others: we look at a child’s shortcomings with an understanding that they are still learning and growing. So, too, I think does God look at us. Therefore, we can undertake Lent with the knowledge that this is an opportunity for gentle growth. We need not pick apart everything that might be done or every possible flaw, but just choose one or a few good things on which to work, and ask God to help us to grow.
Jesus also says that we need not be public or self-aggrandizing about our efforts. I know that I am apt to complain to someone (even if only my husband), how hungry I am when I fast, or what an effort I am making with some practice. But in such cases we can never really know if our motives are pure or not: am I doing this for God’s sake or for the sake of looking like a “good Christian” to somebody else? Therefore, Jesus tells us to act in a way that is hidden to others, except God— and perhaps a trusted spiritual friend or two who can offer support. Give alms secretly. Pray in private. Fast and try not to complain. Instead, be cheerful, because there is reason for good cheer: Lent will give forth to the blossoming of Easter and its many good gifts.
Lent is a season of penitence and preparation, but it is ultimately also a season of hope because we already know the truth of Easter, that God’s love and goodness have triumphed over sin and evil. Now we participate in the divine mystery of that transformation, trusting our way through, letting Divine Love carry us.