Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Return to me with your whole heart

Ash Wednesday, February 21, 2007:

“Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart.” It is with this cry from the Prophet Joel that we begin our Lenten journey. It is not necessarily the type of cry we were expecting. We usually think of Lent in harsh terms – penance, sinfulness, and overcoming weakness. But, this cry, “return to me with your whole heart” is the cry of a lover who has been separated from the loved one either by distance, or time or perhaps even betrayal. It is a heart-to-heart cry. This cry is God begging Israel to return to His gracious and merciful love. What a startling thought – given our sinful nature, we should be begging God to take us back; but instead God, who loves us so much that He would even die for us, pleads for our return. God is not content to leave us in our sinful ways. He is more like a loving parent, pleading with a difficult child: Come back in the house where it’s warm; don’t pout in your room; rejoin the family.

We have all in some way turned away from our initial commitments. We are not as open with our spouses; we are not as patient with our children. We cut corners at work; we refuse to forgive someone who has hurt or wronged us; we insist that everything be done our way. We are not sensitive to the simple promptings of God in our lives. The season of Lent is a time to step back for a moment and examine our hearts, so that we can rekindle our fervor and return.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of the three traditional Lenten practices: giving alms, prayer and fasting. But he warns us not to perform such acts for praise. Joel says: “Rend your hearts, not your garments!” In other words, our penance should not be superficial or merely for show. It must cut to the bone; it must be tailored to our own real needs. Perhaps we should be more generous with our material possessions. Or maybe it is our time or attention that we have withheld from others. Perhaps we have neglected prayer, thinking that we have little time for it when in fact we might snatch moments as we travel to and from work or while doing the dishes. Perhaps we should fast—not diet—from our favorite indulgence: food, drink, television or the like.

Lenten practices themselves are rather pointless if they do not turn our hearts around, back to God and back to the people in our lives. The need is different for each one, because human failing is so individual. Whether these failings are serious or not, they tend to eat away at our relationships with God and with others. Paul urges us to be reconciled with God, to be open to the grace that has already been gained for us. Lent is the time to do this. It is the “very acceptable time.” It is, in fact, “the day of salvation.”

By having our foreheads marked with ashes in just a few moments, we are making public our commitment to this change. We will surrender ourselves to God’s love; we will surrender ourselves to God’s will. We will allow our God to mold us, to change us, to love us once again.

The God who loves us so deeply begs us today, “Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart.” My brothers and sisters, “Behold, now is a very acceptable time…We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” Let us together today, and for the 40 days that lead us to Easter pledge our return to Him.

May God give you peace.

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