Now is the favourable time
(Readings: Joel 2:12-18; 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18)
Introduction to Mass
Ash Wednesday and the whole season of Lent focus our attention on the reality that lies at the heart of the Christian faith: the reality of human sin and divine forgiveness, the drama of our alienation from God giving way to reconciliation with God.
To begin Mass let us acknowledge the sins and failings on our part, and ask God again for forgiveness on his.
The response to the psalm today sums up one of the main themes of the Lenten Season: "Have mercy on us, O Lord, for we have sinned".
Thoughtful, spiritual people aren't able to deny to themselves that they're not in perfect communion with God: this applies to every human being who has ever been born. Our inclination towards self-centredness, which comes out in all sorts of ways, subtle and unsubtle, the weakness of our will towards love and truth and goodness, keep God at a distance.
But on his part God has never been content to stay at a distance. The story of the Bible, Old and New Testaments, is the story of God's plan to bring us back into friendship with him - to liberate us from the effects of sin and self-centredness and to restore our original likeness to him. That's what we mean by salvation.
But there are various ways of misunderstanding the Christian idea of salvation. One way is to place too much emphasis on the "human sin" side of the equation and not enough on God's forgiveness.
Let's put that tendency under the heading of "Catholic Guilt" - or maybe, better, "The Christian Neurosis" - because historically many of the Protestant denominations have been more preoccupied by human depravity than even the fiercest preachers of repentance in the Catholic tradition.
The result of this tendency is an oppressive, joyless spirituality. The believer is overwhelmed by a sense of inadequacy and inferiority, a sense of their own moral wickedness that goes far beyond a clear-sighted acknowledgement of their weaknesses and wrongdoing.
In spiritual terms they believe, in effect, that they don't deserve to receive God's love and forgiveness and, if their imagination works in a certain way, they become obsessed by the prospect of going to Hell.
The opposite tendency, also a profound misunderstanding, is to put too much emphasis on forgiveness and not enough on the abiding reality of sin. I don't know what label we should use for this attitude: "Christian smugness", maybe.
The Smug party, unlike the neurotic party, believe that they are not personally affected all that deeply by sin at all: all that fiery biblical stuff about "repent of your sins before it's too late" from rather extreme personalities like John the Baptist is exaggerated - or belongs to a more primitive phase of religious development, perhaps. We've moved beyond that now.
The misconception here is that since God is all loving and forgiving and compassionate and so on, there's nothing anyone could possibly do to fall out with him. God will always welcome the sinner back into his company. So we can pretty much do what we want - or at least, in this outlook, Christian morality becomes a rather relaxed, easy affair without the need for any depth of repentance.
Probably no one would describe their position on those exact words, but I'm trying to describe a general mentality, and I don't think I'm caricaturing too grossly the way many church members today think about God and the demands of Christian faith.
The readings today, the beginning of the Church's great penitential season, strike the right balance between those two extremes and point us towards a correct understanding of human sin, God's forgiveness and the value and purpose of penance.
"Come back to me with all your heart, fasting, weeping, mourning" This is the appeal the prophet Joel makes to the people of God in his time. Then Saint Paul says the same thing to his fellow Christians: "Be reconciled to God. We beg you once again not to neglect the grace of God that you have received".
Salvation - liberation from sin, growth in love and holiness, deepening friendship with God, call it what you like - is a matter of cooperation between God and us. God invites us to share his life, he never stops inviting us, and he does everything to pull us towards him - this is the "grace" that Paul talked about.
But he won't force us into friendship with him. We need to decide, freely and deliberately, to respond to God. "Salvation" needs both elements: God's will to forgive and our desire to repent.
The season of Lent each year is a time to recall that fact, to renew the effort on our side to reply to God's invitation. In the gospel Jesus tells us what the best means are, the best tools to use to achieve this: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. These are all practical things - easy to understand, if not so easy to do, and do well.
Setting time aside for the quiet solitary prayer that Jesus recommends, depriving ourselves of food and drink, giving money and possessions away to people who are needier than ourselves, these are all classical means of responding to God, focussing our attention on God more directly, opening ourselves more fully to the influence of his grace.
They don't, if you notice, have a "humanitarian" motive - at least Christ doesn't give that as their primary goal, even in the case of giving alms. He makes these suggestions as ways of benefiting ourselves, in the sense of improving and furthering our own individual relationship with God. That has to underlie everything else we do, and nobody had a stronger sense of that than Christ himself.
"Now is the favourable time" to be reconciled with God, says Saint Paul. Over the next six weeks let's hope we can all find ways of putting Jesus' suggestions into practice and renewing our whole sense of the salvation we've been given through him.