From Ashes to Alleluia: the Lenten journey

I am resposting this talk that I gave in our Chapel last Lent. Enjoy!

Dear God, we know that every journey begins with a first step. Be with us this evening as we take another step in our Lenten journey. We began this journey with the sign of ashes on our forehead, reminding us that this is no ordinary walk. We move one step forward in the promise of your light. We seek new meaning in the Easter that awaits us all. But first, we must walk with you to Jerusalem, to Calvary, to the Tomb and beyond.

Every religious experience begins with emptiness. We began the Lenten journey in the desert and we continue to walk, making the journey from Ashes to Alleluia.  On Ash Wednesday we came forward to have ashes placed on our forehead and to hear the words “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return”. The burnt palms, symbol of the joy and majesty which accompanied Jesus during his entrance into Jerusalem, become the dust and ashes placed on our forehead.  Burned into our collective memory is the sight of the dust that chased people down the street as they fled in fear from the collapse of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Building in 2001. It was a dust that covered everything with a layer of doom. Dust which left us with a sober feeling of emptiness and futility. Dust which humbled us all, we were violated by it. The dust of Lent, the dust of the ashes in the sign of the cross is different. This dust leads to wholeness, and rather than run from it, we freely embrace it and are embraced by it.

I remember often raking out the fire at home and finding cinders among the dust and ashes which were still glowing, the fire could be re-lit from these burning cinders. We all know the story of Cinderella but maybe we never thought that it could give us a lesson in the theology of Lent. Cinderella is the young girl who literally sits in the ashes. As the fairytale continues, we see that before the glass slipper is placed on her foot, before the beautiful dress, the ball, the prince, the dance and marriage, there must first be a time of being humbled and sitting with herself. God can do the same with us, he can rake through the ashes of our life and find those burning cinders, that small spark which can be fanned into the Paschal fire which will herald Christ the Light, the Resurrected Lord, during the Easter Vigil. We will have our happy ever after ending, if we stay close to Him, we will receive the gift of his love and in return to be able to love Him and others with unconditional love.

When we fast or carry out Lenten penance we are encouraged, as the Gospel reminds us to “wash your face, put oil on your head so that your fasting may not be seen by others.” This is the paradox of Lent. Yet, we are called to be expressive in our joy of knowing and following Christ. For some people, Lenten penance might actually mean being joyful as opposed to being moody or giving up chocolate or other such things. Jesus does not want us to go looking for suffering; he wants us to accept the suffering that confronts us as we live our lives according to Gospel values. Too often during Lent we pick our own suffering and our own crosses. You don’t have to raise your hands, but how many people have ‘given up’ chocolate, caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes , swearing for Lent? We tailor the crosses to fit our lives. There is a little story which illustrates this point perfectly: A man who went to America from Ireland would go to the Irish pub every Friday night. He would order three pints, one for himself, one for his brother in Ireland and one for his brother in England. The bartender thought this was a wonderful custom. Then one Friday night, the man came in and ordered just two pints. The bartender was curious but did not question it. Finally after three weeks of just two drinks, the bartender asked which brother had passed on to His heavenly reward. The man said, “No, they’re both fine, sure it’s myself that’s off the drink for Lent”.

During the Lenten season, we are allowed a glimpse of what exactly the Resurrection will bring. The 4th Sunday in Lent is known as Laetare Sunday, that is, Rejoicing or Exulting Sunday. The purple vestments are changed for a rose coloured one, flowers return to our altars. For that day, we have the preview of Easter joy. Is it not strange though to be talking about joy during Lent, as we enter Passion Week, are we not meant to be going around with sad faces, punishing ourselves and doing penance, downcast and depressed? 

The message of the Holy Father for the 27th World Youth Day which is celebrated on Palm Sunday every year has as its theme: “Joy is at the heart of Christian experience”. The theme comes from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Ph 4:4). In a world of sorrow and anxiety, joy is an important witness to the beauty and the reliability of Christian faith. As the hymn remind us “We are an Easter people, Alleluia is our song”.

The Pope writes and I paraphrase here: “Our hearts are made for joy.  Though if we want to be filled with God, we have to first empty ourselves. Each day is filled with countless simple joys which are the Lord’s gift; the joy of living, the joy of nature, joy of a job well done, of helping others, of sincere and pure love. Yet any day we also face any number of difficulties. Deep down we also worry about the future, we begin to wonder if the full and lasting joy for which we long for might be an illusion and an escape from reality. The quest for joy can follow various paths, and some of these turn out to be mistaken, if not dangerous.” Too often, we dilute the gravity of sin because we fear that we will put people out of their comfort zones. Sin is serious precisely because it is the complete contrary of the Incarnation. The Incarnation of Jesus is the bridge between Heaven and earth, our link to the Father. Every time, ‘I’ become the centre of my life, I weaken that bridge, it becomes unsteady. When I sin, I remain on one side, Jesus on the other- God’s mercy through the Sacrament of Reconciliation reconstructs the bridge! From God’s mercy, joy is born, true joy comes from the experience of knowing that we are infinitely and uniquely loved by God. The Pope reminds us: “God offers us an unconditional acceptance which enables us to say: I am loved, I have a place in the world and in history, I am personally loved by God. If God accepts me and loves me and I am sure of this, then I know clearly and with certainty that it is a good thing that I am alive.
To seek the Lord and find him in our lives also means accepting his word, which is joy for our hearts. The liturgy is a special place where the Church expresses the joy which she receives from the Lord and transmits it to the world. Every Sunday we celebrate the central mystery of salvation, which is the death and resurrection of Christ. Sunday is the day where we meet the Risen Christ, listen to his Word .  We hear in Psalm 118, “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad”. At the Easter vigil, the Church sings the Exultet, a hymn of joy for the victory of Jesus over sin and death. And our response: we live a life of love for him. As St. Therese of the Child Jesus, a young Carmelite, wrote, “Jesus, my joy is loving you”. Another Theresa, Mother Theresa of Calcutta similarly spoke about joy saying: “Joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls. God loves a cheerful giver. Whoever gives with joy gives more.”

If we are to experience joy, we must also be generous. We cannot be content to give the minimum. Experiencing real joys means recognising the temptations which lead us away from it. Often our present society pressures us to seek immediate goals, achievements and pleasures.  At times the path of Christian life is not easy and being faithful to the Lord’s love presents obstacles, occasionally we fall, we flirt with evil and panic only when it threatens to take over,. Sometimes in order to grow, we first need to fall apart. Yet God in his mercy never abandons us, he always offers us the possibility of returning to him. Sin has many names and even more faces, but in the end sin is always the same thing. It is our turning our back on God.

This Sunday we mark Palm Sunday or more correctly Passion Sunday, we will hear two Gospels, one of the triumphant entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem, accompanied by the rejoicing crowds. Not long after that same crowd will hand Jesus over and crucify him, as we will read in the second Gospel, the Passion and Death of Jesus according to the Gospel of St. Mark. We tend to misunderstand the ‘passion of Jesus’, identifying it with the pain of the physical sufferings which he endured on the road to his death. Jesus’ passion is more than this and can be understood as passio, that is, passivity, a certain submissive helplessness that Jesus had to undergo to fulfil the plan of the Father and bring eternal life for us. During Lent, we might have heard a lot about conversion. The Greek word for conversion, metanoia indicates a turn around, a change in direction. This Sunday, we too are called to turn around, to face towards Jerusalem and walk with Jesus. Are we prepared to face a completely new direction? The reality is, Jesus doesn’t want admirers, He wants followers.

After Palm Sunday, we continue in our Holy Week towards Holy Thursday where Jesus broke bread with his closest disciples and invites us to do ‘this in memory of him’. The Eucharist is not a private act of devotion meant to square our debts with God, but a call to and a grace for service. It is meant to send us out into the world ready to give expression to Christ’s hospitality, humility and love. He says to us: “Receive, give thanks, break and share”. Nourished by the bread of life, we as disciples, dare to walk the Way of Calvary with Him and live the Good Friday experience.  There is a story told about St. Teresa of Avila. One day the devil appeared to her, disguised as Christ. However Teresa wasn’t fooled for a second. She immediately dismissed him. But before he left, the devil asked her, “How did you know? How were you so sure that I wasn’t Christ?” Her answer: “You didn’t have any wounds. Christ has wounds”. The proof of Jesus’ immense love for us was made visible on the Cross. The nails didn’t hold him there, his love did. When Jesus rises from the dead, the first thing he did was to show his disciples his wounds, glorified now, but extremely humiliating to him before he died. The wounds of the scars of love, scars that each one of us carries if we allow ourselves to love and be loved.

 It is said that one day Michelangelo, strolling in a courtyard of Florence, saw a block of rough stone covered with dust and mud. He stopped suddenly to look at it and said: “An angel is hidden in this mass of stone. I want to bring him out!” And he began to work with his scalpel to give shape to the angel he had glimpsed. So it is with us. We are still masses of rough stone, with so much dirt and useless pieces. God the Father looks at us and says: “Hidden in this piece of stone is the image of my Son, I want to bring it out “.
Leonardo da Vinci once said, sculpture is the art of removing. Is it not true for our life? For us however it is not about the attaining an abstract beauty of building a beautiful statue, but about bringing to light and rendering ever more resplendent the image of God that sin tends continually to cover. We are God’s masterpiece, his work of art but he needs to chip away at us. Hidden in the ugliness of death and sin is the light of the Resurrection if we are willing to wait out Holy Saturday. Each of us must fight our own demons, struggle with our own sadness. The Resurrection gives to us the equally unbelievable possibility of the newness of live that forgiving and being forgiven brings. The Resurrection promises that things can always be new again .It’s never too late to start over, no betrayal is final, no sin is unforgivable. God never gives us on us, even if we give up on ourselves. Resurrection is not just a question of three days, after death, rising from the dead, but it is about the daily rising from the many mini-graves within which we so often find ourselves. The Resurrection teaches us how to live, again and again and again!

I leave you with the words of the Holy Father, this is my invitation to you as we enter into the holiest of weeks. “Dear friends, learn to see how God is working in your lives and discover him hidden within the events of daily life. Believe that he is always faithful to the covenant which he made with you on the day of your Baptism. Know God will n ever abandon you. Turn your eyes to him often. He gave his life on the cross because he loves you. Contemplation of this great love brings a hope and joy to our hearts that nothing can destroy. Christians can never be sad, for they have met Christ, who gave his life for them.”

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