Drought, then fires, moths, storms and floods, then plague: what a strange year or two we’ve had! Especially with this continuing pandemic hanging round our necks, it can feel like the end of the world is coming. And that’s exactly how the ancients would have read these signs…
Not literally the end of the world of course: the ancients knew full-well that that had been predicted many times before by the prophets of doom and had come to nought. But they also had a keen sense that the end could come for us any moment, that everything is contingent and transitory, and that nothing is more certain than death.
Nowadays we expect to live to a good age, and boys your age probably don’t ponder death much. Fair enough: it might be morbid if you did. But COVID-19 has underlined just how vulnerable and mortal we are. Your generation appreciates better than mine just how fragile and endangered our natural world is also. In an age of climate change and global pandemic, we might well join those ancients proclaiming the end of the world – at least, as we know it. Much of what was ‘normal’ may never return and much of ordinary life is now lived through a new lens.
One common response is to curl up in a self-protective ball, if not physically, at least emotionally and spiritually. Public health requirements of quarantine and isolation, social distancing and mask wearing have been prudent to protect our physical health; but they’ve come at a cost to our emotional health, leaving many people feeling lonely, anxious, grieving. Many are investing their hopes in the roll-out of the vaccine but, even if it keeps us healthy and allows the economy to tick along, it will not address the deeper spiritual malaise.
Deep down, with Joel today, we all cry out: “Spare your people, Lord, spare us! Don’t let your heritage be disgraced.” (Joel 2:12-18) This simple prayer is the human spirit reaching out to the divine, the human heart speaking to the Sacred Heart, the human mind inspired by God’s mind. For, like God, we are spiritual beings, even if like Jesus we are bodily beings also. There’s more to us than flesh and bone, viruses and vaccines, important as these are. Our souls inform our bodies, making them live bodies, human bodies, our bodies. They ground our consciousness, rationality, freedom and life after death. Without souls, we couldn’t focus on health and economy, the twin obsessions of the day.
If vaccines, ventilators, social distancing and the rest can address the physical dangers, what are we to do about the spiritual ones? Well, three ancient remedies for ills of spirit are proposed to us in today’s Gospel and every Lent: prayer, fasting and charity (cf Mt 6:1-18).
Prayer seeks reconciliation with God, as we face up to our sinful neglect of Him, our unwillingness to share our time and will with Him, and seek by better communication to cultivate a better relationship with Him. The best Lenten prayer is surely the Sacrament of Reconciliation – available during morning break every Friday in the College library.
Fasting seeks reconciliation with ourselves, facing up to our sinful obsessions with comfort and self. By a little self-denial we gain greater self-mastery and cooperate with God in healing our hearts. Catholics know they can also pray and fast for various intentions, such as that the hungry may have food, the lonely have love, the grieving comfort, those at-risk good health, the dead new life.
If Lenten prayer reconciles us with God and Lenten fasting reconciles us with ourselves, Lenten charity is about reconciling with our neighbours. We face up to our sinful unwillingness to share our comfort and selves with others. By a little generosity we cooperate with God in healing our relationships. Project Compassion allows us to treat each needy person as if they were God or another self, or both, that is as if they were Jesus (cf. Mt ch25), feeding Him in the hungry, responding as we would in a bushfire.
But if we only pray a little – only irregularly scratching a few moments from our busy schedules of school, sport, friends, family, Facebook and the rest; if we only fast a little – between mouthfuls or between midnight and dawn; if we only donate a few odd coins we’d have trouble using anyway or some old clothes we weren’t going to wear again: we’re not doing enough. If we only go through the motions when we pray but never with our whole hearts, if we only give from a safe distance never encountering the poor, if we only fast from things we won’t much miss, then whatever of the quantity there’s very little quality.
Not to say we should become Lent fanatics, starving ourselves, giving away the clothes on our backs, praying so intensely we forget to go to class. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are supposed to be good for us, not self-destructive.
Today palms leftover from last Holy Week have been rendered to ash. For the first time for most of you, you’ll get them on the crown of your head rather than the forehead – it’s a safety measure in time of COVID. Many cultures do this every year anyway. In the years I’ve been overseas for Ash Wednesday, I’ve often had a lump on ash dumped on my head! It’s also the way the ancient Jews did it, wearing sackcloth and throwing dust or ashes over themselves. Indigenous Australians, also, throw dust and ash over themselves to mark grief.
So, you see, receiving the ashes isn’t primarily about wearing a temporary tattoo on your forehead by which you ‘come out’ to the world for a day with your dirty little secret that you’re a Christian. (That’s a secret you should be sharing with as many people as possible, every day.) No, Jesus says today to do good deeds not for people’s admiration or gratitude but secretly so no-one thinks you’re a holy Joe. If the usual Ash Wednesday cross on the forehead has some witness value that’s great, but the ashes are intended primarily to sharpen our focus on our own spiritual life, on the vulnerability of a material world that eventually returns to dust, and on our need for God and each other.
In that poignant psalm the Miserere, set to glorious music by great composers down the centuries and sung by boys from your College down the years, we pray for God’s mercy, for our own cleansing, for a new heart, pure and steadfast, for a joyful spirit to sustain us and lips to declare the divine praises (Ps 50). As you receive the ashes today, resolve in the private room of your heart to seek and receive God’s cleansing mercy, to invite Him to renew your soul with purity, courage and fidelity, to allow Him to fill your spirit with a deep Christian joy.