Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Be Merciful, O Lord, For We Have Sinned.

Ash Wednesday
Reading I
Joel 2:12-18
Even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.
For gracious and merciful is he,
slow to anger, rich in kindness,
and relenting in punishment.
Perhaps he will again relent
and leave behind him a blessing,
offerings and libations
for the LORD, your God.
Blow the trumpet in Zion!
proclaim a fast,
call an assembly;
Gather the people,
notify the congregation;
Assemble the elders,
gather the children
and the infants at the breast;
Let the bridegroom quit his room
and the bride her chamber.
Between the porch and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the LORD,
weep and say, “Spare, O LORD, your people,
and make not your heritage a reproach,
with the nations ruling over them!
Why should they say among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?’”
Then the LORD was stirred
to concern for his land
and took pity on his people.
+++    +++    +++    +++   
Psalm 51
Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion
wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
and of my sin cleanse me.
Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
For I acknowledge my offense,
and my sin is before me always:
“Against you only have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight.”
Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
A clean heart create for me, O God,
and a steadfast spirit renew within me.
Cast me not out from your presence,
and your Holy Spirit take not from me.
Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
Give me back the joy of your salvation,
and a willing spirit sustain in me.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Reading II
2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2
Brothers and sisters:
We are ambassadors for Christ,
as if God were appealing through us.
We implore you on behalf of Christ,
be reconciled to God.
For our sake he made him to be sin
who did not know sin,
so that we might become
the righteousness of God in him.
Working together, then,
we appeal to you
not to receive the grace of God in vain.

For he says:
In an acceptable time I heard you,
and on the day of salvation I helped you.
Behold, now is a very acceptable time;
behold, now is the day of salvation.
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Take care not to perform righteous deeds
in order that people may see them;
otherwise, you will have no recompense
from your heavenly Father.

When you give alms,
do not blow a trumpet before you,
as the hypocrites do in the synagogues
and in the streets
to win the praise of others.
Amen, I say to you,
they have received their reward.
But when you give alms,
do not let your left hand know
what your right is doing,
so that your almsgiving may be secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

“When you pray,
do not be like the hypocrites,
who love to stand and pray
in the synagogues and on street corners
so that others may see them.
Amen, I say to you,
they have received their reward.
But 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.

“When you fast,
do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.
They neglect their appearance,
so that they may appear to others to be fasting.
Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.
But when you fast,
anoint your head and wash your face,
so that you may not appear to be fasting,
except to your Father who is hidden.
And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”

The first reading is from the prophet Joel of whom very little is known. His name is shared with about a dozen other Old Testament figures. Internal evidence would seem to indicate that he lived in Judah during the Persian period of Jewish history (539-331 BC). The majority of historical references in his book, in which there is no mention of Assyria or Babylonia, would point to a period between 400 and 350 BC. He is regarded as a ‘cultic' prophet, that is, he exercised his ministry within the life of the Temple. Today's reading comes from the earlier part of the book in which Joel sees a plague of locusts which ravaged the country as a sign of God's judgement on his people and hence a time for repentance. "Fasting, weeping, mourning…" Fasting was required once a year on the Day of Atonement but also in times of calamity (as with a plague of locusts). It was a sign of penitence and submission to God by a sinful people. Today's passage is an eloquent and beautiful call to repentance. "It is Yahweh who speaks - Come back to me with your heart, fasting, weeping, mourning… Let your hearts be broken, not your garments torn.." Why? Because Yahweh "is all tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in graciousness, and ready to relent". (This is in contrast to the prophet Jonah who early on in his mission complained that God was too easy on sinners, especially Gentile sinners.)The passage is a solemn call to repentance. Repentance here is not just sorrow for the past but a call to a complete change of life. The emphasis is on inner change, not outward observance - "Let your hearts be broken, not your garments torn".

For us, too, Lent is better observed by an inner change in our way of life than merely the external ‘giving up' of minor pleasures. A change that will continue well beyond Lent and become a consistent pattern of our living.It is certainly not a time for fear. Our God is a loving God. "He is all tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in graciousness, and ready to relent." This is almost a chorus line that echoes through the Old Testament. So we can approach God in the greatest of confidence. But repentance in the Scripture is not just feeling bad about the past and looking for forgiveness.It is about bringing about a complete change of thinking, a new way of seeing our lives, moving forward on a different track. What the Gospel calls a metanoia, involving a radical change in the way see our life and the direction in which it ought to go. How to benefit from the goodness of the Lord? "Sound the trumpets in Zion! Order a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly, call the people together…the community…the elders…the children…even infants at the breast… Let the bridegroom leave his bedroom and the bride her alcove…let the priest, the ministers of Yahweh, lament. Let them all cry out for pardon and forgiveness." All are called together for a common show of repentance, peoples from their homes, newlyweds from their bedchambers, even the priests making sacrifice in the Temple. It is a time for everyone to leave their sinful ways - from priests to children - and to repent with deepest sorrow. God is reminded that they are his people. If they are reduced to shame, outsiders will be driven to ask: "Where is their God?" Just the question that people often ask when disasters strike - Where was God when his people died by the million in the Nazi concentration camps? Where was God when the Twin Towers were struck? When thousands died in the tsunami of Southeast Asia? When a close relative died, the innocent victim of a driving disaster…? The question to ask most of the time is not: Where was God? but Where were we? In Joel's case, the Lord did reply. The prayer is answered; the plague ceases. Yahweh, jealous of his own people, takes pity on them. Let us pray that this Lenten season will help us to see the world and to see life as God sees it. The wonderful Scripture readings of Lent will help us.

The second reading is a powerful appeal from Paul to the Christians of Corinth which fits in perfectly with the beginning of the Lenten season. First, he reminds us that we are "ambassadors for Christ". It is through us, through our words and actions, that God is seen by the rest of the world. That is a tremendous responsibility and something to be seriously reflected on especially during this Lenten season. Secondly, Paul points out that, for our sakes, God made Jesus, who was altogether without sin, "to be sin". In this sense, that Jesus, the altogether sinless One, willingly endured the effects of sin and evil, especially through his suffering and death on the Cross. His purpose in doing that was that "we might become the very holiness of God". In other words, we too are called to walk the same Way that Jesus did, to be ready to suffer and die as he did. In this more than by any other thing we might say or do, we truly become ambassadors for Jesus Christ. So Paul begs the Corinthians (and us) that this tremendous act of God's love enacted through his Son, Jesus, be not in vain. Lent is a time for us to contemplate deeply the meaning of Jesus' life, suffering and death for each one of us and to reflect what changes it calls for in the way we live our lives of discipleship now. "Now is the acceptable time! Now is the day of salvation!" For the Christian the time of conversion and change is always NOW and never more so than during the great season of Lent.

In today’s Gospel, taken from Matthew, Jesus speaks to his disciples about the three central acts for the devout Jew: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. The only fast actually laid down in the Mosaic law was that of the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:31) but in later Judaism the practice of regular fasting was common. The Gospel tells us that John the Baptist used to fast and he was contrasted with Jesus who ate with sinners (which does not mean that Jesus did not fast). The Pharisees also fasted regularly.

For Christians too these acts are all proper to the Lenten season. And all three can profitably be incorporated in some way into our lives during these six weeks. We might think about devoting some time to praying (not just saying prayers) every day, and learning more about methods of prayer. Most of these recommend spending 20 minutes twice a day in prayer. That may seem a lot but many of us, even in a busy day, do not have a problem with spending an hour or more on a TV program. For some it may be possible to pray in a small group together with shared prayer.

There are now in most places only two official fast days in the whole of Lent. Some people would never think of fasting although they may be on a diet which is even more stringent than what the Church asks. Fasting can consist of doing without something we do not really need, even if we are over the age for fasting: alcohol, nicotine, snacks and tidbits… Sometimes it is harder to let go of these things than to eat fish - especially if you like fish!

And do not let us forget to share something of what we have with those who are in need. Why not take the money that would be spent on that fancy meal you decided to forego and give it to those who do not know where their next meal is coming from? If you have given up movies for Lent or any other indulgence, again let the money saved be diverted to the really needy.

The Gospel today emphasizes the importance of doing all these things quietly and without ostentation. No one should even know we are praying more, sharing more or doing without things. Once we draw attention to ourselves doing these things, they have lost their real purpose which is to bring us closer to God and his ways.

Living Space
The Irish Jesuits


Sarah in the tent said...

Rend your hearts, not your garments.

This phrase reminds me of Our Lord's Passion. His seamless robe was not torn up but his heart was pierced.

Fr. John L. Sullivan said...

Let's not tear it," they said to one another. "Let's decide by lot who will get it." This happened that the scripture might be fulfilled which said, "They divided my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing." So this is what the soldiers did. (John 19:24, Psalm 22:18 They divide my garments among them, And for my clothing they cast lots.)