Ash Wednesday 2011
“For our sake God made the sinless one into sin, so that in him we might become the goodness of God.” We have just heard these remarkable words from St Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. “For our sake God made the sinless one into sin, so that we might become the goodness and the righteousness of God,” words we need to take to heart because they reveal to us the deepest meaning of Lent. There’s a real danger of trivializing Lent with our penances and prohibitions.
We all know that Lent is a time for repentance and conversion, and that’s fine, but the prophet Joel insists, “Let your hearts be broken not your garments torn. Turn to the Lord your God again, for he is all tenderness and compassion, slow in anger, rich in graciousness, and ready to relent.” God wants to speak to our hearts and he would like our hearts to speak to him. “Heart speaks unto heart,” in the famous words of Blessed John Henry Newman. The problem is, of course, that we try to replace our hearts, in other words our real selves, full of anger, pride, jealousy, envy, resentment, sexual desire, impatience, all the passions that thrive within us, with a false image of ourselves when we stand before God, an image characterised by our church face and Sunday best. In order to turn to God so that heart speaks unto heart, we need to be our real selves in the presence of God, because it’s only the real me who can be forgiven, healed and saved.
In the Gospel the Lord Jesus tells us the same thing. Whether we’re fasting, praying or giving alms, all necessary and excellent practices rather than penances, we should do it “in secret”, so that God alone sees what we’re doing. “Be careful not to parade your good deeds before men… you will lose all reward from your Father in heaven.” The living out of our faith is not a show, it’s not something we put on for others to see, nor is it something superficial and worthless. No, it’s what’s really going on inside of each one of us and it’s a secret between the soul and God. But rather than cause us anguish, pain or anxiety, the fact that God knows everything should fill us with confidence and hope. We can keep secrets from others, we can even fool ourselves, but God knows us through and through. In the words of that lovely Roman collect so exquisitely translated by Cranmer, “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hid.”
And so to come back to St Paul, salvation is God’s gift, it is not of our making. We cannot save ourselves, not by our good works, even less by our Lenten penances. Our essential goodness and righteousness is God’s work, God’s gift to us in Christ. For our part, we must learn to accept God’s gift in all simplicity and with humility. The danger of Lent is that it can foster our obsession with ourselves rather than help us focus on God. It is in Christ, and only in him, that we can become the goodness and the righteousness of God. Forgive me if I suggest a way of conversion that does require an act of the will on our part but at the same time leaves God free to work his miracle of grace in us. Remember the words of St Paul, “We beg you once again not to neglect the grace of God that you received.”
As I mentioned above, most of us are a raging ocean of more or less uncontrollable passions and we spend much of our lives being torn apart by the waves and currents of life. That is why so many lapse in their faith and stop going to Mass and Confession. They feel they’re getting nowhere. Some of us who are here today are probably hanging on for dear life. Well now, instead of fighting and always losing the battle, why not do this instead? When our passions surface, as they do all the time, just thank God for them and praise him. Simply say, “I praise and thank you, Lord, for the real me.” Don’t forget that the Latin word “Confiteor”, in the plural “Confitemini”, means to proclaim the goodness of God and his mercy and to give him thanks: it is an acclamation of joy and thanksgiving as much as it is a confession of sin and sorrow. Thank God for your defects and weaknesses, thank God for your ailments and illnesses, thank God for everything. You’ll soon find that, in the first place, you’ll be praying without ceasing, without even making the effort. Secondly, you’ll discover that some of these passions are beginning to subside, subdued by the grace of God. “Look towards him and be radiant,” the psalmist sings, “Look towards him and be radiant.” Never forget that.
“For our sake God made the sinless one into sin, so that in him we might become the goodness of God.” I’ll end with a few words of St Bernard, wonderfully encouraging words. “Sorrow for sin is indeed necessary, but it should not involve endless self-preoccupation. You should dwell also on the glad remembrance of the loving kindness of God.” That is my prayer for us all as we begin the Holy Season of Lent today. Amen.
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