Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ashes and Graces

Readings for Wednesday, February 22 / Ash Wednesday:
Joel 2:12-18
Psalm 51:3-5, 12-14, 17
2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

Today we begin once again that great season of Lent. A practice said to have begun in the time of the Apostles, we have always held this time as a special season of grace. Modeling the 40-day temptation of Christ in the desert, where He was led by the Spirit, ministered to by angels, and tempted by the devil, we ourselves take up the yoke of penance and ask to be led by the Spirit into the spiritual desert where our faith is proved in the fire of temptation. 

To aid us in this purification, we turn to those ancient practices of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. These practices are for us a sort of spiritual medicine to heal the soul of its sinful inclinations, especially what St. Paul calls the 'triple lust' - the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and pride of life. These three lusts are part of our fallen nature, and really are the sins that cause Adam and Eve to fall. If we turn to Genesis 3 and read the account of the Fall, we see that Eve saw that the forbidden fruit was 'good for food' - lust of the flesh. She longed to eat it. Secondly, she saw that it was 'pleasing to the eyes' - lust of the eyes. She knew it was something that she wanted but ought not to have. Lastly, she knew that it was 'desirable for wisdom' - pride of life. She wanted to become more than what she was, thinking this would enable her to do so. And so, the triple lust of the heart led Adam and Eve to partake of the fruit and merit condemnation. 

Temptation in the Desert, 15th Century French work
Centuries later, Christ the Lord was led to the desert to be tempted by the evil one. Interestingly, the devil tempts Him in the same manner as Adam and Eve - a sign that Christ is the New Adam and brings about a New Creation. The devil tempts the Lord, who is indeed hungry from fasting, to make bread out of the stones in the desert. Lust of the flesh. Jesus remains faithful to the Father and resists the temptation. The devil shows Christ the huge landscape and promises great power over it if He would but submit to the devil. Lust of the eyes. Christ sees all that is possible before Him, rejects the temptation and remains faithful. Lastly, the devil tells the Lord 'if you are the Son of God, leap from this tower and let the angels catch you'. Pride of life. The devil tempts the Lord, who could well have done this and all things, to exalt Himself in the midst of the world. Christ rejects the temptation and remains humble and faithful. By rejecting these three temptations of the triple lust, Christ brought redemption where Adam and Eve had sown condemnation. 

As we gather today, we take up that practice of fasting to fight the lust of our own flesh. We give alms to the Lord by charitable giving and works, showing that we are not seeking to build up our own wealth. Lastly, we turn to the Lord in prayer and recognize that God is God and we are not. These things do not exactly come easy, though, as we have likely found in the past. It takes a certain amount of effort, but more than that, it takes a tremendous amount of God's grace. And to help in that we have the recovered practice in Lent of the Prayer Over the People at the conclusion of Mass. Normally at the end of Mass we have the Post-Communion prayer, wherein the priest uses the 'we' and 'us' to include himself in the prayer for God's grace to come upon the community as they have received the gift of the Eucharist. The Prayer Over the People comes immediately after that prayer and does not use the 'we' but rather is the priest praying over the community in the name of the Lord. This practice was used from around the 3rd Century until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960's and now is in use once again since it's restoration by Blessed John Paul II. As noted, the difficulty of keeping our penances - both those chosen ourselves and those given us by the Lord - is sometimes intense and so the Church pours upon the faithful a sort of second-helping of grace in order to persevere and be found faithful as Christ was faithful and so merit for ourselves not condemnation but grace and redemption.