Ash Wednesday – February 22, 2023

One of the newspapers I read has a daily Arts column. The column reports on the performing arts, music, gallery openings, and the like. Over the years, I have noticed that I have less and less interest in the newspaper’s reporting on popular music. My interest in music has not waned, but my connection to pop music has done. I can’t even pronounce the names of many of the people who perform pop music today. The failing is entirely my own; I’ve become almost entirely disconnected from that area of the Arts, and I’m probably worse off because of it. I have noticed this same lack of connection between religion and secular society. 

Religion is no longer perceived to serve adequately the needs of secular society and secular society is no longer seen to serve adequately the needs of religion. Lent puts this antipathy into sharp relief. 

In the continuation of the Sermon of the Mount in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus addresses the practices of almsgiving, fasting, and prayer. These three are essential practices of personal piety in Judaism and Christianity.  I have no statistical evidence, only my own observations, but it seems that these three essential practices no longer serve adequately the needs of the Church or wider society. 

In secular society, almsgiving is often understood to be overt approval of some people’s ‘choice’ to live in poverty. Prayer has no value at all to secular society. Fasting, on the other hand, has become a sacrament of one of secular society’s most precious values: the sense of victimhood that all are supposed to adopt and nourish. At the present time, we are fasting from eggs because they’re in short supply. We’re fasting from restaurant dining because of inflation. We’re even forced to fast from major purchases and luxury expenditures. All this deprivation serves well to reinforce our cultural sense of entitlement and the requisite victimhood that accompanies it. 

These three practices no longer serve the Church well, either. Almsgiving is too tainted by our culture’s suspicions about the poor. Prayer is little more than the recitation of a menu of our consumer desires, and fasting is a tactic for accomplishing the weight loss prescribed by our physicians. 

The season of Lent intends to remedy these deficits listed above. The remedy is described in today’s first reading. The prophet Joel issued this prophecy during a plague of locusts that was afflicting Judea after the Exile. Joel, speaking on God’s behalf, said that the People’s sufferings and afflictions were the result of their lack of faith in God. He urged the People to return to God with their whole hearts. (Jl. 2:12) God, in turn, promised to heal all the People’s ills. 

I would like to suggest that the many things we love to complain about fall into the same category as the plague of locusts that the People complained about during the ministry of the prophet Joel. Specifically, the sense of victimhood that makes us feel as if everyone is trying to take advantage of us all the time is solely a consequence of our lack of faith. This is so because, when we conceive of ourselves as under assault and entirely alone, we do so only by excluding God and God’s People from our lives. 

The suspicions we harbor that prayer is an unreliable means to address what is lacking in our lives is also the result of a lack of faith. When prayer is focused on oneself, one’s worries, and one’s dissatisfactions, prayer reaches no farther than one’s capacity to fret.  

The many complaints we have about not having all our desires met adequately are the result of a lack of faith in God, as well. God is source of all good, but not source of all consumer goods. Faith in God naturally elicits gratitude in the hearts of God’s People; faith in consumer products elicits only envy in the hearts of the shopping-disadvantaged. 

The prophet Joel urges us to break open our hearts, that is, to change radically the way we think. (Jl. 2:13) This radical change should address specifically all the values and choices that are the consequences of a lack of faith in God alone. Obviously, this is a daunting task. To give up one’s sense of entitlement, one’s sense of victimhood, and one’s concupiscence feels like giving up one’s sense of self. If you are terrified by the thought of giving up so much of what has become the substance of your personal identity, take heart: Lent lasts only about six and a half weeks. 

This year, try Lent as an experiment, albeit a safe experiment. If, after six and a half weeks of not worrying about yourself, not complaining about others, and not blaming the world for your dissatisfactions, you want to return to the way your life was before Lent, you will be free to do so. If, on the other hand, you find that changing the way you think has caused a lasting, positive change in your life, your relationship with God, and your relationship with others, then Lent will have had its intended effect. Even a brief period of turning away from self and toward God can have the effect of opening one’s eyes to the meaning of God’s promise to heal all ills. Try it! You might find that generous almsgiving, faithful prayer, and fasting from selfishness are thoroughly worthwhile.  

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