Ash Wednesday: The battle is joined!

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Ash Wednesday: March 9, 2011
Joel 2:12-18; Ps 51; 2 Cor 5:20–6:2; Matt 6:1-6, 16-18

In this Gospel reading from the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord warns us not to do religious acts in order that people may see them. These are not for them; not for their eyes; not for their praise. They are for our Father in heaven who sees what is hidden.

And yet our Lord so much wants us to do these acts that he doesn’t even explicitly command them here but just takes them for granted: “when you give alms,” “when you pray,” “when you fast.”

And the fact is that these actions are for others. Not for their praise; but for their good, their benefit, their healing, their salvation.

In the movie “The Passion of the Christ,” there is a point when Jesus is carrying the cross, and he falls; and his mother the Blessed Virgin Mary comes up to him, as in the 4th Station of the Cross. She seeks to comfort him in his pain, as he tries to get back up; and he takes her face in his hand, and looks into her eyes, and says, “Behold, Mother, I make all things new!” And with that he turns his eyes again toward Calvary, stands to his feet, shoulders his massive cross, and steps forward again on the road toward the salvation of the world.

He is surrounded by ugly sin, in the soldiers and the crowd pressing in on him: by hatred and violence and cynicism and injustice and all the corruption festering within their hearts. And yet he has just looked into the eyes of the most beautiful creature he and the Father ever made: conceived without sin, full of grace, filled with nothing but love and kindness and humility and concern for others. “Tota pulchra es, Maria, et macula originalis non est in te. You are all beautiful, Mary, and the original stain is not in you.” And all the beauty and goodness that he sees in her eyes, he knows that he can put into the eyes of the whole crowd around him; he can transform their ugliness, their hatred, their corruption, their sin, until it is as pure and perfect and holy as the immaculately conceived Virgin Mary.

But it is going to cost him. Oh, how it is going to cost him. “Behold, Mother, I make all things new!” And he takes up his cross again.

Brothers and sisters, today we begin the season of Lent; and today we take up our cross in union with our Lord. For he has willed to give us a share in his project of redemption. It did not have to be so. He could have chosen differently. But it was fitting, and for our greater dignity as persons redeemed in him, adopted as sons and daughters of the Father, that we should share in overthrowing what we were enslaved to: to Satan and sin and death. It was fitting, and for our dignity, that we should join our Lord in his battle for us.

At the beginning of this Mass we prayed the opening prayer:

Father in Heaven,
Protect us in our struggle against evil.
As we begin the discipline of Lent,
make this season holy by our self-denial.

Now, this prayer is okay. It’s fine. But what the prayer really says is much better. Perhaps you have heard that, in less than 9 months, we will begin using a new retranslation of the Mass into English—which will be so much better and stronger, truer, more reverent, and, yes, more exciting. Next year, this is the prayer I will pray at the beginning of Mass on Ash Wednesday:

Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting
this campaign of Christian service,
so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils,
we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint
.

That’s what the prayer really says! [Thanks to Fr. John Zuhlsdorf]

When we take up our cross, when we take up the practice of penance, especially in Lent—we are armed to join our Lord’s battle against spiritual evils. We take up our cross with him and, side by side, we wage war.

War against what? Two things that I would like to point us toward this evening.

First, to the leftover consequences of original sin that remain inside us after baptism. The Catechism tells us [1263-64]:

By Baptism all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins, as well as all punishment for sin. … Yet certain temporal consequences of sin remain in the baptized, such as suffering, illness, death, and such frailties inherent in life as weaknesses of character… as well as an inclination to sin that Tradition calls concupiscence…

Physical suffering; character flaws; and an inclination to sin. This is what we battle against. The Catechism continues:

…since concupiscence “is left for us to wrestle with, it cannot harm those who do not consent but manfully resist it by the grace of Jesus Christ.”

Who manfully resist it. How often do we just roll over and give in to those sinful urges? Well, no more! That ends today. This is the season when we say no to those urges, whether they be outright sinful or just a little too strong, a little too addictive. This is the season when we bring those wayward tendencies within us back into line; back under the kingly rule of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the season when we close off those siren voices and listen to his good command; when we leave behind selfish gratification and give of ourselves to others.

And that brings us to our second objective; the second result of our Lenten discipline. For our sins, and the sins of all of our fellow human beings around us, have done great lasting damage, everywhere we turn. Through our sins we have weakened ourselves; and we have weakened our relationship with God and neighbor [CCC 1459]. We also have wounded others; we have done harm to them that lasts; perhaps very great harm, very deep wounds. We have done this ourselves, through our own sin; and we see constantly, don’t we, the terrible wounds done by others. Consider the wounds left by child abuse (some of it, horribly, by priests); or the abuse of a spouse; by rape; by torture; by addiction to drugs or alcohol; or by natural disasters, in this fallen world.

Our Lord gives us the privilege of doing reparation: so that, even when we can’t reach out and help such people to heal directly, in his grace our penance counts. In his grace, these acts of self-denial and mortification and charitable service and generous giving are done through our Lord, have their efficacy from him, … and through him they are accepted by the Father. [CCC 1460, citing the Council of Trent] In his grace, we have a share in the redemption of the world.

St. Paul wrote to the Romans [8:18-21]:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us. For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation … itself will be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.

So roll up your sleeves and pick up your cross! And think of the ashes as a sort of war paint as we take up battle against spiritual evils, both within and without, during this campaign of Christian service that we begin today. One day, may you and those you love hear those words addressed also to you: “Tota pulchra es… You are all beautiful, and the original stain is not in you.”

The one who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” [Rev 21:5]

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