Read the Gospel Passage for Ash Wednesday
Ash Wednesday inaugurates Lent, and the Church invites us to be with Jesus in the desert. This will be my second Ash Wednesday as a priest. Last year, I was surprised to see that while most of the year the Church struggles to fill her pews, on Ash Wednesday throngs of people came out to be smeared with ashes and told to repent. The large number of people seems to suggest a desire to really enter into this season; therefore priests need to capitalize on the opportunity to foster this unique encounter between Jesus and each person’s desire to be freed from sin.
In order for Lent “to work” we need to understand why we are invited to the desert. What is supposed to happen in that strange dry place?
Most of us fearfully imagine the desert as a place where we will be left to our own thoughts, hungers, weaknesses and fears. If this were true, then despair would be inevitable. And sadly, this is the experience of most of us. We experience Lent as a kind of solitary confinement, where we are to be brutally punished for our sins. We rarely experience the depths of Lent because once we taste the initial discomfort of our brokenness, we do not know where to turn. We think of ourselves as alone. However, this way of thinking is hellish, and foreign to our Father’s desire for us.
In contrast to this experience of desert isolation is God’s reason for orchestrating the annual desert of Lent. Through the prophet Hosea, God says to Israel, that like an unfaithful wife she has gone “after her lovers, but forgot me” (Hos 2:13). In this passage, the heart of sin becomes clear: We forget God’s fulfilling love and turn towards others for fulfillment. Read in the proper tone, one can hear in this passage the pain of a lover whose spouse has been unfaithful. No destructive anger exists in this passage, just God’s hunger for Israel to be in unbridled union with Him. This dynamic of forgetting and infidelity is true of each one of us. Like Israel, we forget God’s love and turn to sin, to our other lovers. But with great delight God responds to our infidelity proclaiming, “Therefore I am going to win her back; I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her” (Hos 2:14). In God’s desert there is always communion and transformation. Far from being a punishment, the desert is meant to foster an encounter between Jesus and our promiscuous hearts. Jesus draws us into the simple desert to win us back by reminding us of His tender caress. Like a husband and wife who need a get away in order to reconnect, in order to deeply remember their first love (Rev. 2:4); so too, every year the Church offers us Lent to give us a context so that Jesus can win us over.
Let us not be naive. This “winning us over” is a painful process because there is nowhere to hide in the desert. All the distractions of daily life are stripped away, and each of us must confront the reality that – like Israel – we are an unfaithful spouse. You and I must stand exposed in our guilt and regret, not to be broken down in isolation, but to be broken open into communion with the Lord. This exposure moves us to cry out with the psalmist, “Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.” Jesus is the Father’s response, and through the sacraments and the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ tenderness really can win our hearts over.
Many people will avoid this depth of honesty and intimacy, preferring to keep Jesus at arms’ distance, but for those who do respond to His invitation, they will experience being filled with “the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). That is to say, where they once had experienced the painful and fearful regret of infidelity, Jesus will establish them in His divine love and communion. God will be all in all, in us. The Bridegroom and the bride will again become one flesh.
This is Lent. This is the drama of the desert. This is what Ash Wednesday inaugurates. Be not afraid. Enter in.
Father Ryan Mann was ordained in May 2014. He is a parish priest at St. Charles Borromeo parish in Parma, OH. He loves jazz clubs, comedy clubs and movies. He enjoys great meals with good friends and being out on a boat in the summer time. Above all of these things, Fr. Ryan loves the eternal life and love of Jesus that is given as a taste through all these little pleasures. Fr. Ryan has attended Theology of the Body I and Theology of the Body II courses with the Theology of the Body Institute.