By Deacon John De Gano
“Why is the priest putting ashes on everybody’s forehead?” Asked the tearful young child, fearful that he would be punished by his parent for getting dirty.
The parent, unable to console the child, asked me for help.
“We do this as a valentine for God,” I said. “To show God (and everyone else) that we love him.”
Each and every Lent we are reminded of and given the tools necessary for self-reflection, so that we might re-gain control of our passions, turn away from sin and grow closer to God.
We know these practices as prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
We are asked to pray more. To retreat as it were so that we can quiet ourselves, eliminate the extraneous noise that surrounds our thinking so that we may be able to listen to, really listen to, God’s voice – the voice of our Shepherd – who calls us to serve the poor and the lowly. To hear his soft voice we cannot be running out ahead of him or lagging too far behind but following him to pasture beside still waters, to refresh our souls.
We do this by eliminating the distractions that get in between us and divide our attention and our loyalty to our Good Shepherd, God.
At the same time we are asked to fast. Fasting is a tool used to focus our attention on the here and now. On the foods (our appetites, really) we eat or the habits we have developed and to consciously target them in order to regain control of our actions. To question what we put into ourselves and whether or not these things are good for us.
We might need to fast from junk food -- from over indulging, in general. We might spend too much time watching TV or on social media and neglect our family and friends (or our faith community).
In fasting then, we have the opportunity to take control of the “autopilot” we have been on all year long and fine tune our minds and our bodies to do with less (to become more self-less)… and/or take on additional responsibilities, such as serving God (‘and neighbor as ourselves’) through a formal ministry of the church, participating in a civic or social organization that improves lives, and/or simply, taking the money, time, and talent we have identified as surplus and using/sharing some of it with the poor and the hungry.
The good that we do is called almsgiving and Jesus said it should flow from us naturally. And we should do it -- not for show – but rather in such a way that our left hand should not know what the right hand is doing –because it is right and just. And we are being good stewards of what God has blessed us with for the benefit of his people, the church.
For everything in life is gift. From our first breath to our last hair on our head, God knows us and has counted each hair follicle, pore and freckle he has placed upon us. And he loves us and wants us to live free from sin and be filled with joy and gratitude.
We can only get there, however, with God’s help, by living lives of self-sacrifice and love.
These tools, then, allow us to put ourselves back on track to becoming the best ‘we’ we can be and for the next 40 days of Lent we, as a community of disciples, give ourselves the gift of self-introspection and renewed awareness that we need God and are willing to do what is necessary (including turning away from fear of punishment and seeking reconciliation with God and neighbor) so that together we may once again undergo a conversion of heart and may ‘resurrect’ with Jesus on Easter morning and stand beside him at the doorway to the empty tomb.
In awe of God’s love and mercy. Spiritually fit and ready to do his will.
John De Gano is a deacon at St. Catherine of Alexandria parish in Riverside.