Ash Wednesday - 2014
A Fitting Sacrifice
Let a crushed heart and spirit
Mean as much as countless offerings...
Let this be our sacrifice today...
Our hearts are completely yours. Daniel3:39-41, ICEL Translation
Early Boomers like myself are easily brought back in memory to Ash Wednesdays of the distant past. I remember lengthy conversations among the numerous girls on my block in Brooklyn. We debated the comparative value of our planned Lenten sacrifices. The list could include: no gum, no candy, no TV, daily Mass, the Stations every week, total cooperation with and obedience to our parents. Perhaps this habit of picking a good Lenten sacrifice lingers with you too. I would like to suggest here that a good choice might be not to pick a practice at all. Is it really necessary to conjure a new something to do or a new something to give up? Is it possible that the most honest, heartfelt and generous practice would be to cultivate a new awareness and a new attitude toward what already makes our lives difficult? Could we practice the grace-filled art of giving new meaning to that which is difficult or painful, that which God has placed in our lives?
Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” We may not all have live lives of quiet desperation but each person has struggles, anxieties, compulsions, problems that weigh one down; pain, sorrow, grief, or illness in body, mind or spirit. Some live in constant danger or uncertainty or the persistent lack of some essential need whether it be remunerative work, money to pay the bills or unconditional love and personal regard. And some bear daily in their hearts a constant concern for a loved one whose illness is beyond their control to relieve or cure. The list of what may make life difficult, of what may be a constant cross, goes on and on. Even when we create our gratitude lists that very act acknowledges the shadow of what we cannot be grateful for, of what we must endure.
This morning Father Richard Smith, pastor of St. Joachim - St. John the Evangelist Parish here in Beacon, NY, retold the story of St. Francis of Assisi who heard a message from God saying, "Rebuild my Church." Francis took the words literally and set about the arduous work of physically rebuilding a church. Later he realized how his literal interpretation may have come from his own grandiosity. Rather than doing physical work with brick and mortar he was to embody in his behavior the proper attitude of the Church, the attitude of Jesus. He demonstrated this understanding when he met the leper on the road. This was a leper whom he had been taught was disgusting, repulsive and dangerous. This was the leper whom he saw frequently along the road and sought to avoid at all cost. But this time, upon seeing the leper on the road, he went to him and embraced him. Francis embraced the leper and kissed his wound.
Whatever the particulars of "quiet desperation" in our lives; what we already endure can be the locus of our Lenten sacrifice. We do not have to invent a penance of our own choosing. In the very inventing we express our egoistic need to be in control, to know better than God. By embracing the leper which is our own "quiet desperation" we embrace what, by the Will of God, is present in our daily reality. Instead of pushing it away, of fighting it and resenting it, we can touch it and examine it. We can prayerfully commit to a previously unreached level of acceptance, to greater self-awareness of our struggle. We may even be moved to the penitential practice of seeking help along the way.
Even if we have already accepted these "desperations", close examination can bring us to greater appreciation of the worthiness of our endurance, of its great value as an offering to God. Rather than making ourselves feel guilty because a better person would not have these struggles and burdens we can embrace them and acknowledge them as something beautiful for God.
In today's Gospel (Matthew 6:1-6,16-18) Jesus said, "When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you." What has been presented here is subject matter for your secret whispers in prayer; prayer that is talk of what is real, what is "fitting sacrifice" from the substance of your daily life. The last step is to unite it with the suffering Christ, totally rejected with his flesh nailed into the wood of the cross. To the suffering of this Jesus unite your own examined, accepted, and even embraced, "quiet desperations" for the salvation of the world.