Ash Wednesday: For the Love of Chocolate
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by Paulist Fr. Rich Andre
March 1, 2017

Ash Wednesday is the busiest day of the year in many churches around the United States. Why is that? Contrary to what many people believe, it is not a holy day of obligation. Several reasons have been offered for people coming in droves:

1. It’s a day when people get something for free. 

2. The ashes on our foreheads are called “sacramentals” – they are an outward sign, a “proof” of our internal faith.

3. Probably most significant: we all know that we are sinful, but there are very few other publicly acceptable ways to discuss our sinfulness in society today.

We start the season of Lent with this acknowledgement. As we will hear the prophet Joel exhort us: “Proclaim a fast, call an assembly; gather the people.” Today, we fast. Today, we gather. Today, we acknowledge our sins. 

Joel also conveys the hope that “perhaps [God] will again relent and leave behind… a blessing.” May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and lead us to everlasting life. Amen. —

Before we continue this Mass, I’d like to challenge each of us to sit in contemplation for three minutes. Sit comfortably, but with your spine straight. Place your feet flat on the floor. Breathe deeply and slowly. Let us sit with soot on our foreheads, contemplating the following questions:

During this season of Lent, I need God’s help and the prayers of this community.

What is weak and sinful in me?

What needs to be healed?

What is good and strong in me? What needs to be strengthened?

We begin the season of Lent with an acknowledgement of our sinfulness, but that is not where we are called to stay for the remainder of the season. Let us begin the process of growth and healing as we listen to an exhortation from St. Paul. —

When you hear the word “Lent,” what’s the first thing you think of? A sooty smudge on your forehead? Eating fish? Giving up chocolate? The stations of the Cross?  Other forms of self-denial, almsgiving, and prayer? Those may be part of Lent, but they’re not the main point. It’s about us growing closer in our relationship to God! The word Lent comes from an old German word meaning “springtime.”  

Like spring, Lent is a season. That means that it comes at a certain point each year, but it also means that we’re at a different point in our lives each time it comes around. Lent can be happy or sad, action-packed or contemplative. It can be whatever you need it to be. It’s like what Jesus says about the Sabbath. Lent was created for us, it’s not that we were made to conform to Lent.

This first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday, is a day to reflect on our sinfulness. What is weak or sinful in us? What needs to be healed in us? What needs to be strengthened?  

But Lent calls us to rise from the ashes of our past failures, to bring a new “springtime” to our spiritual life. Hopefully, every year on Ash Wednesday (and perhaps in the few days before and after Ash Wednesday), our reflections on our failings will naturally lead to ideas for disciplines that open us the grace of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit can provide us with the strength to overcome our failings.

So where are you called to grow in your relationship with God over the next 6 weeks? Some years, perhaps we’re called to grow in simple ways through simple disciplines. Perhaps, in other years, we’ll have the ability and the opportunity to do something more heroic.  

Hopefully, after a few years, we’ll be able to look back at previous Lenten seasons and recall the gifts we received from the Holy Spirit. For me, Lent of 2000 was the season that I took a new engineering job… and the Holy Spirit helped me learn the benefits of taking leaps of faith. Lent two years ago was a season of addressing issues of death and dying… which I’ll reflect on in a special way next week as I celebrate the anniversaries of my mother’s birth and my father’s death. Lent of my freshman year was the season that I got more involved with the Church… and the Holy Spirit eventually inspired me to become a priest!  

So where are you called to grow in your relationship with God over the next 6 weeks? Then, and only then, is it time to think of appropriate disciplines. I think that this is the more mature way to celebrate Lent. I have yet to hear how giving up chocolate is the best way to improve someone’s relationship with God!

Are you too self-centered? Perhaps serving others would help you put things in perspective. If you’re an undergraduate, come to CSA on Wednesdays at 7 pm, and Bernadette or Fatima can explain how you can serve at various charities around town. If you’re a graduate student or a young professional, perhaps you can join others from the parish at serving at Shannondale Nursing Home on Monday nights. Are you overwhelmed by your schoolwork? Perhaps you could find ways to simplify your life this Lent by spending less time on Facebook and less time watching TV. Do you get drunk every weekend? Perhaps you could give up beer for the next six weeks instead of chocolate. Are you addicted to internet porn? See if you can kick the habit in the next 40 days. Fr. Charlie, Dr. Ruth, and I would be glad to offer you counsel. Do you find it hard to believe that God would find you lovable? Perhaps you can resolve to love yourself more by getting enough sleep every night, eating healthier foods, and going to TRECS. Is your relationship with a good friend or your spouse deteriorated? Resolve to seek help through prayer and counseling.

Don’t forget the Church’s recommended disciplines of fasting, almsgiving, and extra prayer. Adapt them to best help you reach your goals of growth over the next 6 weeks. (As much as I love sushi and seafood, I don’t think it’s a form of self denial to eat lunch at Nama or Chesapeake’s on Fridays in Lent.) We have lots of opportunities for learning new ways to pray this Lent. Check the bulletin for information on our lectio divina group on Mondays and our reflection series on the Seven Last Words of Jesus on Fridays. For the next six weeks, small multi-generational groups of parishioners are meeting all over town at various points throughout the week to study the upcoming Sunday Scriptures as part of a program called Living the Eucharist. Call the office as soon as possible, and we’ll match up with a group. Can’t do any of that? Surely you can find a few minutes a day to check out bustedhalo.com’s spiritual resources. There are flyers in the lobby for more details.

And, if at all possible, receive the sacrament of Reconciliation. It will make it easier to start this new springtime afresh in our relationship with God. Check the bulletin for the many reconciliation opportunities we have here and around town.

The main point is this: Lent is a season for us to grow. As St. Paul says, “now is a very acceptable time.” On behalf of the entire community at Blessed John XXIII Parish – staff, students, and permanent residents – we wish you a prayerful, refreshing, and profound Lent.