"Turn again to the Lord your God"
(Readings: Joel 2:12-18; 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6,16-18)
Introduction to Mass
The Pharisee movement at the time of Jesus was an attempt to purify and reform the Jewish religion, but the Pharisees tended to think that they could bring about a spiritual renewal by observing a huge mass of ritual rules and regulations down to the last letter. On top of that it seems that they weren't free from the temptations of pride and ostentation. Many of them wanted people to notice their great religious devotion and admire them for it.
As we come together to celebrate this Ash Wednesday mass, we acknowledge the times when we've acted out of insincere motives and practiced double standards, and we ask God for his forgiveness.
Most people don't like to have their beliefs and values questioned or criticised. We all know what it's like to feel indignant or annoyed when someone suggests that we should examine our ideas or re-think our positions on things. They're being patronising - and it's none of their business anyway. We're even more annoyed if we have to admit to ourselves that the criticisms are valid.
To put it in more religious language, few of us welcome the invitation to repent - we don't really like being asked to change our mind about something, to stop believing one thing or doing something one way, and to believe something else, and to start doing it another way.
But for us, as members of the Christian community, that's what the season of Lent is all about. To people with no faith, to outsiders who don't understand our Christian beliefs about human sin and selfishness and about the way God changes us and makes us holy, our yearly season of penitence, and today's ritual of marking our foreheads with ash, probably seems daft and pointless.
But in the context of faith in God, the Ash Wednesday ritual - and the whole six weeks of Lent - is an external sign of an inner decision to own up to our sinful tendencies and a sign of our willingness to look at ourselves critically and to re-dedicate ourselves to the values and the way of life of the gospel. Lent, in other words, is about repentance.
Both the prophet Joel in the first reading today and Jesus, in the gospel passage, are talking about how important it is for our external signs and gestures and actions to match up the attitudes we have inside - our inner motives and intentions.
The Pharisees drew attention to their religious devotion - their prayers, their practices of self-denial, their acts of charity. Their efforts were praiseworthy but their real motive was to show off. One of their habits, for example, was to fast on Mondays and Thursdays, because those were the market days, and so they had a bigger audience for their acts of piety. Rather than being genuinely filled with God they were theatrically playing the part of the holy man. And Jesus poured scorn on that kind of ostentation and posturing.
The Pharisees' behaviour is a warning to us because they represent temptations that any religious believer can fall into. Jesus' advice, on the other hand, is that we should become conscious of these temptations and avoid self-deception about our real motives. He advises us to confront this tendency to cultivate the admiration of other people and suggests that we attend to all the important aspects of our relationship with God in secret: hidden from others and unknown to them. When we do this we get rid of the ulterior motives, the self-seeking motives, that sometimes influence us in our spiritual life.
If we can, we should fast - or eat and drink less than we usually do - to focus our attention on God more. Fasting has always played a part in all the major religious traditions: at the most basic level fasting lessens our attachment to our ordinary bodily appetite for food and drink and raises our awareness of our spiritual hunger, our need for God. The practice of fasting challenges our modern preoccupation with food and eating, our self-involved attitudes concerning healthy diet and physical welfare.
Ultimately the material aspect of life is the less important than the spiritual and fasting is meant to raise our awareness of that.
Then, if we can, we should put more time aside to pray, to stimulate a desire for God rather than the various substitutes that are available. The rushed, pressured way of life which people live today, filling every moment with activity and resenting solitude and quiet, is hostile to interior calm and prayer and an awareness of God.
For Christians Lent is a time to examine the pattern of our own "lifestyle", to slow down and to create more space for God. Regardless of the way other people live, we should always make time to go to our private room, shut the door and pray to God. This isn't something that benefits God. We gain by making contact with God in prayer because more than any other activity prayer helps us become detached from the superficial and immature aspects of our character and grow in our resemblance to God instead.
And lastly, if we can, we should be more generous than we usually are with our money and possessions - both to free ourselves from being dependent on money and possessions and to benefit people who are poorer and struggling. Simplicity in relation to material things, freedom from compulsions to acquire and accumulate personal possessions, a genuine concern and care for the needs of others are all habits that take root in us as we get to know God better.
A sort of “virtuous circle” develops when we undertake these spiritual practices: fasting, prayer and almsgiving help clear the way for God, and the more we are open to God’s influence the more we foster these spiritual attitudes.
So repentance is usually a gradual thing: most people don't change overnight. Getting close to God normally involves a constant series of conversions, not a single giant leap. Let's pray in this mass that God will give us the help and the strength we need to turn to him sincerely and wholeheartedly, and to use this Lent as an opportunity to come back to him with all our hearts, as the prophet Joel passionately urges.