Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The courage of surrender

HOMILY FOR ASH WEDNESDAY, March 9, 2011:
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“Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart.” With these words, God once again invites us into this great season of renewal. The words are challenging. If we are returning to the Lord, it reminds us that perhaps we have been away from the Lord. If we are returning to the Lord, it reminds us that we must be leaving something behind – namely, our sin.

But, even in the midst of this, it is important to remember that Lent is not a time of battle, rather, it is a time of surrender. Sometimes we envision Lent as the great spiritual battle of our year. We see Lent as a conquest. We say, “I will overcome this sin or that vice;” or, “I will succeed in giving up this thing or that practice.” But, what Lent is really calling us into is the realization that we can never overcome our sinfulness on our own. Ever. Triumph over our sin is not found in ourselves. It is found in Christ alone.

Listen to the words of our Psalm today, “Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense;” and, “A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.” Notice the psalmist is aware that God is the active party. He doesn’t say, “Help me wipe away my offenses;” or “Help me create a clean heart in myself.” Rather, God creates the clean heart, God wipes out the sin. The task is to surrender everything to God – only then will our offenses be wiped away and a renewed and clean heart created by God.

Our Lenten goal – our spiritual goal – is to give ourselves totally to God, as He has given totally of Himself to us in Christ. To surrender. To let go. To let God. There is a story of the way African hunters trap monkeys. They slice a coconut in two, hollow it out, and in one half of the shell cut a hole just big enough for a monkey's hand to pass through. Then they place an orange in the other coconut half before fastening back together the two halves of the coconut shell. Finally, they secure the coconut to a tree with a rope, then retreat into the jungle and wait.

Sooner or later, an unsuspecting monkey swings by, smells the delicious orange, and discovers its location inside the coconut. The monkey then slips his hand through the small hole, grasps the orange, and tries to pull it through the hole. Of course, the orange won't come out; it's too big for the hole. To no avail the persistent monkey continues to pull and pull, never realizing the danger he is in. While the monkey struggles with the orange, the hunters simply stroll in and capture the monkey. As long as the monkey keeps his fist wrapped around the orange, he is trapped. What the monkey doesn’t realize is that it could save its own life if it would only let go of the orange. It rarely occurs to a monkey, however, that it cannot have both the orange and its freedom.

This is exactly what we are reminded of each and every Lent. Similarly, we cannot have both our freedom in Christ, and continue to keep our hands and our hearts clutched on things that are not of God, on our sins. To be free, we must let go; we must surrender. And this should be our focus over the next 40 days of Lent.

In a few moments, we will put ashes on our foreheads as the outward symbol of this penance, of the surrender we’re prepared to undergo during this Lent. If all we are here for today is for these ashes on our foreheads, and don’t enter into Lent honestly, then we leave the church today with nothing more than dirty foreheads. So, what should we do to make this an effective Lent? Well, whatever we do, it should involve sacrifice – it should cost us a bit, hurt a bit, pinch a bit, and challenge us a lot! Lent is about conversion, from what was to what can be. So, let me offer three ways we can make this Lent special - one personal, one communal and one universal.

First, the personal. You know that even as I share these words, God is putting something on your heart that He wants you to leave behind; that He wants you to surrender. It isn’t the simple and superficial practices of giving up sweets or eating between meals. Perhaps it is something major and challenging like giving up the desire to gossip; giving up the anger that controls your life; to heal grudges and past hurts, to turn away from problems with drinking or even drugs. Whatever it is, you know God is calling you to something specific, something personal, something that desperately needs to change if you are going to grow in holiness.
Whatever this personal thing is, God calls us to surrender it to Him so that we may grow better in His sight.

The second things we need to do is communal. During Lent, we have many additional opportunities for our community to gather in prayer. We have daily Mass at 8 a.m. each day. We have added an additional time for Confession – Friday nights or anytime by appointment – so you can purify your soul. We have Stations of the Cross on Friday nights so we can meditate upon the sacrifice Christ made for us. We will have a simple meal of bread and soup together after Stations to be united as a people of faith. The point is, if we are going to successfully navigate this time of penance and prayer, we need to do it together. We need to pray together, prepare together. We need each other. We can help each other. None of us should make this Lenten journey alone. Let’s travel together towards Easter joy.

And something universal. We should all let this Lent help us to focus on others – contribute some money to the poor, to local charities, to the Church, to the St. Vincent de Paul. One mark of our growth in holiness is a greater awareness of the needs around us. Our small sacrifice here can have a big impact on the lives of others elsewhere.

So, these are the things we can do – something personal, something communal, something universal. Let us pledge ourselves wholeheartedly to these 40 days of Lent that that this may be a true and effective Springtime of faith in our lives.

“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.”

May you have a holy season of Lent and may God give you peace.

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