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Posted by on Mar 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday: Spiritual R & R – Reconciliation and Renewal

Ash Wednesday: Spiritual R & R – Reconciliation and Renewal

Receiving the Ashes in the Sign of the Cross


Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent. It tends to be a day when people think about what they are going to give up in preparation for Easter. Fasting can be seen as a convenient type of dieting. Almsgiving can be reduced to cleaning out the closets.

However, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are ancient practices in societies and religions all across the world. They are ways to produce altered states of consciousness and encounters with the divine. In the Christian tradition they are part of the “via negativa” or negative way. Generally, we tend to see this type of deprivation against the historical backdrop of hermits in the desert rejecting the “flesh” of worldly temptation and indulgence. Of course this conflicts with our consumer culture of comfort and instant gratification. It also conflicts with a more positive psychological model in which the focus on human weakness is replaced with a focus on human self-fulfillment and actualization.

In the secular model of well being, human and social limitations can be overcome by refocusing our attention and modifying our behavior. Hammering down our feeling and emotions – especially sexual ones – is sometimes seen as harming mental health. By denying our interior tensions and conflicts, we can fail to confront the real challenges we should be facing in our psychological development.

Lent itself is an old word for Spring – that time when the world comes to life again. The “via negativa,” the more traditional model of asceticism (an interesting Greek word for athletic training), and the contemporary model of self affirmation are not really opposed. They can actually be healthy correctives. If we focus exclusively on restraining ourselves we not only ignore opportunities for growth, we can also ignore what God is calling us to do. Focusing only on my needs and self-fulfillment can also lead to such an inward narcissistic self-absorbed focus that we cut ourselves off from true happiness.

In subsequent posts, as we journey through Lent, I will share with you some more reflections on being happy, holy, and healthy. This is a wonderful season for reconciliation with ourselves and others and a time of renewal for our call to serve and to engage in the coming of the Kingdom – the age of justice.

So.. what am I going to get for Lent?

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Posted by on Feb 16, 2010

And Once Again, The Seasons Turn

And Once Again, The Seasons Turn

Mardi Gras beads

It’s Tuesday afternoon, the day before Ash Wednesday, a day called Mardi Gras  or Carnival in many places. The sun is shining yet again here in Santa Cruz, as it did all weekend, with warm breezes, bird song, blooming fruit trees, sour grass, wild radish, camelias and daffodils to celebrate the wonder and promise of Spring. A far cry from the winter so many people are still experiencing here in the Northern Hemisphere. It should be noted, that this beautiful weather will not last for long. Already storms are lining up out on the ocean for the end of the week. But today it is beautiful.

I’m sitting here thinking about the interesting confluence of themes that have met this week. Sunday was Valentine’s Day, a day of hearts and flowers, a day of many marriages, the birthday of a friend from graduate school whom I remember fondly, a day of gifts and remembrances for those we love. For some it’s a day of disappointment or sadness, when a loved one is not thrilled, or when no one is there to say “I love you,” or when a relationship has ended and the hurt has not begun to heal.  

Sunday was also the day many people in the world celebrate the beginning of a new year, a day we call Chinese New Year, though it isn’t only the Chinese who celebrate this day. Parades, parties, special foods, gifts, and good wishes abound.  It’s a day of hope for the future.

This particular Sunday, the readings of Cycle C from Jeremiah, Paul and Luke challenged us to keep our focus on the Lord and not put our fundamental trust in the things of this world. Calling the poor, the hungry, the weeping and the excluded ones among us blessed, Jesus warns that those who find life easy and who never challenge the status quo for fear of arousing the enmity of those in power are not close to the kingdom of God. It’s a message that is far from our American cultural concept, drawn from the earliest colonial days, that those who are economically secure and respected by their fellows are those blessed by God, while those who are poor, sick, injured, or otherwise disadvantaged are somehow not pleasing to God and are being punished.

Father Ron Shirley, our pastor, in his homily told the story of a wedding toast. The best man offered a toast wishing only the best for the bride and groom, with never a moment of pain or sadness. Then a stranger stepped up and offered a toast. He was dressed simply and seemed out of place. He assured the couple that he loved them deeply then offered a series of strange wishes for them – that poverty, sorrow, pain, and controversy would be part of their lives.

Today we celebrate Mardi Gras – with rich foods, parties, celebrations of abundance and the promise of good things to come.  And tomorrow we enter into a time of reflection, of conversion, and of returning our attention and our intentions to God and the works of God. Are they opposites or mutually exclusive? I don’t think so. Jesus and his followers certainly didn’t go around in sack cloth and ashes, continually fasting. They were criticized for their love of good times and celebrations. But there is a time and a place for abstaining from some of the good things of live in order to be open to the deeper fundamentals of God’s life and love for us. Jesus and his followers quietly entered into those times as well.

And so we follow them into these weeks of reflection and self-control, as we break our addictions to the excesses of the world around us and try to be more open to the quiet wonders of God’s love in people and in nature. The season is turning. New hope is in the air. Easter is coming soon.

May these days of Lenten preparation be full of the awareness of the Lord’s presence in your life and of the abundance of His love and support in all of life’s challenges.

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