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Together We Face Into Ash Wednesday

Sr. Patricia Bruno, OP

Together We Face Into Ash Wednesday

295th Edition     February 2024
Together We Face Into Ash Wednesday

Welcome to Stories Seldom Heard.  Mardi Gras, Ash Wednesday and Lent are just around the corner.  In fact, Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday arrive on the same day!  Mardi Gras is the day before.  The city of New Orleans celebrates it in great style, but they are not alone.  Many of us have Mardi Gras parties. The following is an adaptation of Gertrude Mueller Nelson’s description of a dramatic and religious Fat Tuesday celebration.  After the frivolity, those present deliberately choose to “face into” Ash Wednesday.

Tonight, I have danced with the bagman.  Tonight, I have danced with a general.  I have danced with clowns and cowboys.  I have danced with the president and an elephant.  I have danced with a cheerleader, with Apollo, with Dionysius. Tonight, I have danced with God.

After the carnival feasting, after the last games and the dances, we sing our final ‘Alleluia.’  We will not hear or use the word ‘Alleluia,’ this expression of greatest joy until it is sung again during the Easter night services.  Drawing the revelry to a close, we face into tomorrow’s Ash Wednesday.  We offer one another a sign of peace and best wishes for a holy and fruitful Lent (1).

The Mardi Gras scene described by G.M. Nelson sets a tone for our Lenten journey.  It’s a stark reminder that we are entering into a unique liturgical time.  As I think forward and face into Ash Wednesday, I welcome this time of prayer and grace.   In a very personal way, the pain and suffering of our sisters and brothers in our communities, nation and throughout the world feel overwhelming.  Their cries for mercy and justice cast a shadow over my heart.  As G.M. Nelson said, when we face into Ash Wednesday, it is time for each of us to “offer one another a sign of peace and best wishes for a holy and fruitful Lent.”

We don’t often think of Lent as a “fruitful time.”  But I have found that whatever energy I put into my Lenten practices arrives a hundred-fold on my Easter doorstep – or soon thereafter.  Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the traditional ways of approaching Lent.  All three of these practices have deep biblical roots that are intimately connected to repentance, a word that implies a radical change on our part. In Hebrew repentance means to turn around, retrace our steps; change direction.  In Greek, it means to change one’s mind or outlook, to change one’s horizons or expectations.  It implies a radical change of heart, a deep interior change that affects everything we desire and everything we do.  Lent is an invitation to which we say “Yes.”

Saint Paul names it “a dying to the old self.”  We understand what this dying to the old self means.  In truth, we die many times in many different ways before our final death.  A woman told me recently about her struggle with alcohol. “To acknowledge it was hard enough,” she said, “but then came the daily struggle to break my old patterns.”  Anyone who has ever been part of this process her/himself, or anyone who has walked with a friend or family member understands the many “dyings” that must take place before there is a sense of resurrection.

During Lent, we will sing and pray again the hymn, “Change Our Hearts This Time.” But what might this change of direction and heart look like in our lives?  God doesn’t ask of us endless sacrifice, but God does ask us to “Cease to do evil…Learn to do good, search for justice, help the oppressed, be just to the orphan, plead for the widow” (Is 1:11, 15, 17).  We hear God’s command and we try to respond daily.  We care for our aging parents, visit people in nursing homes, bring Communion to the sick, and volunteer at homeless shelters. We care for our families, do an honest day’s work, and are serious about our prayer life. What more are we to do?

It’s hard to add one more good work to our list of spiritual and corporal practices.  So perhaps we could think of fasting–fasting as a “not doing” rather than a “doing one more thing.”  In other words, we could choose not to gossip.  We could consciously turn away from a pettiness of spirit and a meanness of heart. We could choose to let go of one tightly held resentment or turn away from the anger that we have allowed to fester toward one person or a group of people.  We could silence our spiteful words, hurtful remarks, and unreasonable expectations.  We could speak less and listen longer and more attentively.
Listening more attentively is one of the most important aspects of the Synod.  We are called to listen to the Spirit not only in prayer but throughout the day.  We are encouraged to listen to others: to hear the unspoken words for which they search. At the Synod, Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, O.P. reminded us of the Sicilian saying: “La miglior parola è quella che non si dice.’ ‘The best word is the one that is not spoken.’  He encouraged us to take time to hear those unspoken words.  Silence and prayer go hand in hand.  They enable us to listen well and discern the Spirit who speaks to and through each of us.

Forty days is a substantial amount of time.  Forty days could help us set new patterns in our lives.  But before we choose our fasting/prayer practice for this Lent, we might want to ask ourselves some questions.  The first set of questions is more personal.  What could help me be a more peaceful person?  What area of my life do I want God to help me change?  Is there a relationship to which I need to be more attentive?  What is lacking in my relationship with God?

The second set of questions focuses on our relationships with the larger communities in which we are involved.  When we look around our world and the suffering people experience, we might ask in what ways can we alleviate the world’s sufferings.  We could intentionally fast in solidarity with those who do not have daily bread. Fasting is the great social leveler. It makes all of us beggars. It reminds us of our dependency on God. It reminds us to place the survival of others before our personal desires and wants.  Fasting could also involve hospitality.  Share a meal with someone lonely.  Bring a dinner to someone who cannot leave her/his house or who is in a rest home.  Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Extend these practices to include the rest of the year.

This third suggestion is a fast for travelers and vacationers.  Consider tithing 10% (more or less) of the cost of your trip/vacation to a not-for-profit organization that resides in the place/country to which you travel.

What is God is asking of us?  “The sacrifice I desire is a contrite heart.”

1. To Dance with God, Gertrude Mueller Nelson, Paulist Press, 1986


Preachers of  Truth • Love • Justice