Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Ash Wednesday: A Lenten Call To Prayer

Almighty and everlasting God,...create and make in us new and contrite
hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins...may obtain of you, the God
of all mercy...perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
You are dust, and to dust you will return.” With this ancient formula, heard by Christians all over the world on Ash Wednesday as the sign of the Cross is traced on their foreheads, we begin the season of Lent. This symbolic act is both a solemn reminder of our being marked in Baptism “as Christ’s own,  forever”, as well as an invitation to renew our lives. Ash Wednesday and Lent are marked by the practice and spirit of penitence. The process of repentance isn’t, some sick form of regret about past mistakes. At the outset of his public ministry Jesus proclaimed, “Repent,  for the reign of God has come!” In Greek repentance literally means a change of mind, of heart, a change of spiritual presence in the heart. In Baptism you and I began to live, as St. Paul puts it, “in Christ”. Jesus hints that to live in him is to be part of and to dwell already in the reign of God: “the reign of God is within you”. Given our human condition, you and I are well aware that we continually stand in need of being called back to change our minds and hearts, and to live in the reign, the presence of Jesus the Christ.
By God’s grace this Lent holds promise of being a special season and time for all of us together to discover or to rediscover Jesus’ presence and peace in our lives. The beloved prayer of St. Francis Assisi expresses this theme so well, and can be of particular help during Lent.
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. 
Where there is hatred, let us sow love; 
where there is injury, pardon; 
where there is discord, union; 
where there is doubt, faith; 
where there is despair, hope; 
where there is darkness, light; 
where there is sadness, joy. 
Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; 
to be understood as to understand; 
to be loved as to love. 
For it is in giving that we receive; 
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; 
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
One of Lent’s traditional disciplines, and the chief way we come to find God’s presence and peace, is to pray for it. We pray for all sorts of things: healing for a sick relative; peace for a dying friend; for inspiration in taking an exam; for the relief of suffering folks throughout the world. St. Francis reminds us that, above all, in praying we need to pray for God. The focus isn’t on asking God for something, but asking that God be there, be present, in everything. Thousand of years before St. Francis, another saint, Augustine of Hippo, exclaimed: “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you!” Andrew Weyermann says, “We have a spirit that curves us into ourselves so that our every want becomes an insatiable need.” We feel all sorts of compelling needs: to put ourselves first; to outdo those who oppose us or differ with our opinions; to be powerful and to possess; to be noticed and needed: even, and perhaps especially, after all those emptinesses have been sated and satisfied, if only momentarily. We find ourselves still reaching out for something more to ease the hollowness and loneliness. But how does one ask for that? How do we pray? “We do not know how we ought to pray...”, says St. Paul.
As we journey together through Lent, anticipating the celebration of Jesus‘ Resurrection, perhaps we can learn to allow the Holy Spirit of God and of Jesus to plead for us, as Paul continues, “with sighs too deep for words...” Perhaps, following Francis‘ example, we can ask for a special measure of God’s presence: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” In praying like that we ask for two things:       
  • Make me in your presence.” So often those words, “make me”, are spoken as words of defiance, of declaring a war of wills. In saying them to God, they take on a whole different meaning, expressing our willingness to hand ourselves over to God present, to allow ourselves to be shaped into something new. St. Paul discovered such a rebirth in the presence of the Risen Christ on the way to Damascus. For Francis, God’s renewing presence took the form of a leper whom others found loathesome, but whom Francis nevertheless lovingly embraced. In Baptism you and I became a new creation in God’s presence, and each time we turn back to God, each time we change our hearts, God stands with us: present, here. “Make me, Lord; create me anew.
  • Use me for your presence.” No one likes to be used, in the sense of having to cater to someone else’s needs and desires, being taken advantage of. Yet there is a sense in which we need to be and choose to be used for God’s purposes. “Make me an instrument of your peace.” It’s similar to the eager team player on the bench who begs his coach: “Use me.” You and I need the assurance that we and our lives count for something, that we’re here on this planet for a reason. St. Paul expresses the reason in this way: “God...through Christ...has given us the ministry of reconciliation...We are ambassadors for Christ...” Perhaps this poem by Thomas Merton, The Candlemas Procession, will resonate with us as we go about our Lenten renewal:
Look kindly, Jesus where we come,
New Simeons, to kindle,
Each at Your infant sacrifice his own life’s candle.
And when Your flame turns into many tongues,
See how the One is multiplied, among us, hundreds!
And goes among the humble, and consoles our sinful kindred.
...Nor burn we now with brown and smoking flames, but bright
Until our sacrifice is done,
(By which not we, but You are known)
And then, returning to our Father, one by one
Give back our lives like wise and waxen lights.

No comments: