A week ago last Sunday, when I told Father Stan [a retired priest who lives at our parish] I was preaching on Ash Wednesday, he told me, “Be nice.” I think that’s great advice, especially this year as we approach a whole year of enduring this coronavirus pandemic. Besides, Christ’s summons to repentance is a great act of charity, one that should be responded to with joy. Today the Lord invites us to live according to the purpose for which he created each one of us and all of us: communion.
Last week, I listened to a podcast featuring Eric Peterson, the son of the late pastor and theologian Eugene Peterson. In addition to authoring many books, Peterson pastored a relatively small church in Maryland for decades. After retiring from ministry, Eugene taught full-time for some years at Regent University in Vancouver, where he had taught part-time for many years during his ministry.
During the podcast, Eric related that his brother, Peterson’s other son, once told his Dad, “You basically have one sermon.” This sermon, his son asserted, while taking different forms, consisted of the following four points: “God loves you. He’s on your side. He’s coming after you. He’s relentless.”1
Revelation informs us that “God is love.”2 Far from despising or rejecting you, God loves you so much that he sent his only Son to save you.3 God’s love, not my weaknesses and/or my failure, is the starting point of repentance. Therefore, Lent is not the time to do an orthodox grovel to the pseudo-Lord who despises me. I must reject this god my inner Pharisee is drawn to worship. Lent is a time to experience, or re-experience, God’s full embrace. “Repent and believe in the Gospel” is Christ’s invitation to enter fully into God’s love.4
When you were baptized, you were immersed into the very life of God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Love, agape, is the essence of divine life. Agape is self-emptying, self-sacrificing, salving and so saving love.
Lent comes from the Old English word for “springtime.” Springtime is the time when life re-emerges, is renewed. Lent is preparation for Easter. Specifically, Lent prepares us to renew our baptismal promises at Easter.
In our second reading, Saint Paul tells his fellow Christians, “We are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us.” Because God makes his appeal through us, he has reconciled us to himself through Christ Jesus.5
As most of you know, the distribution of ashes this year, due to concerns about transmitting the sars-cov-2 virus, is different. But it is not new or novel. It is an older tradition, one used continuously in many parts of the Church, including at the Vatican. Instead of having a big, black cross smeared on your forehead, you will have palm ashes sprinkled on the top of your head.
In light of our Gospel, which is the same each year on Ash Wednesday, the normal way Catholics in the U.S. receive ashes should cause no little cognitive dissonance. Instead of being able to take selfies and, as the marketing that passes itself off as evangelization urges you, “Show Your Ash,” it gives you the opportunity this year to be known by your fruits, that is, by your good works.6
How do you produce good fruit? Good fruit grows on healthy trees. Healthy trees require good soil. Good spiritual soil is made by the authentic and daily practice of the three fundamental spiritual disciplines Jesus himself teaches: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
These disciplines, while distinct, are interrelated. Prayer can become too personal, abstract, and disconnected. Almsgiving, which includes serving others, is not a uniquely Christian undertaking. Fasting, which the Church bids to do today and on Good Friday by obligation, is the discipline that integrates prayer and almsgiving. Therefore, fasting is a discipline we should integrate into our own spiritual practice. Spiritual practices are what constitute spirituality.
Prayer is embodied by fasting. This embodiment results in almsgiving. Without a doubt, fasting is the most neglected of the three fundamental spiritual disciplines. I think there is a useful correlation to be made between the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving and the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and love, or caritas (i.e., charity).
Prayer corresponds to faith, almsgiving to charity, and fasting to hope. Just as fasting integrates prayer and almsgiving, hope integrates faith and love. Hope is the flower of faith and charity is the fruit.
It is important to note that according to Church teaching, faith, hope, and charity are gifts from God. God gives divine gifts gratuitously. In other words, God’s gifts are grace. God doesn’t give these gifts because we’ve earned them. God gives us gifts to use in his service. We serve God whenever we serve others in Christ’s name and for the sake of God’s Kingdom. The New Testament word for such charitable service is diakonia.
Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, in and of themselves, will not bring you closer to God. There is nothing magical about doing any or all of these things, even together: “Only God can bring you closer to Himself. What the discipline is meant to do is to help you get yourself, your ego, out of the way so you are open to his grace.”7
If you’re anemic, hypoglycemic, or suffer from an eating disorder, it is probably best to forego fasting rigorously. According to canon law, you can eat one full meal and two smaller meals that together are not more than a single meal and still be fasting, while abstaining from meat.
Above all, do not get hung up on the rules for Lent, especially if you are prone to scrupulosity or have similar unhealthy tendencies. Spiritual disciplines can be life-giving or soul-killing.
When understood and practiced well, spiritual disciplines are done freely and produce joy. “The purpose of the [spiritual] Disciplines,” Richard Foster noted, “is liberation from the stifling slavery to self-interest and fear.”8 The risk, however, is practicing spiritual disciplines in a way that is rule-bound and enslaving.
TToday start your Lenten journey with the reassurance that “God loves you. He’s on your side. He’s coming after you. He’s relentless.” It is God who will bring to completion the good work he’s begun in you.9 May this Lent be a time when, by a more joyful, intentional, and integrated spirituality, you clear some space for God to accomplish his “good work” in you and through you.
1 Renovare Podcast 206, "Eric Eugene Peterson – That’s My Dad" (go to 17:55-18:23).↩
2 1 John 4:8.16.↩
3 John 3:17; 1 John 4:10.↩
4 Roman Missal, Ash Wednesday.↩
5 2 Corinthians 5:20.↩
6 Matthew 7:20.↩
7 James Kushiner, Mere Comments blog, "Lent: Take Three, 22 February 2007, accessed 16 February 2021.↩
8 Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiirtual Growth, 2.↩
9 Philippians 1:6.↩