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Posted by on Mar 2, 2022

A Clean Heart Create for Me

A Clean Heart Create for Me

The holy season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. This is a time of preparation and growth. In just six and a half weeks, we’ll arrive at Easter. In the northern hemisphere, Spring is fast upon us. Here on California’s Central Coast, it is in full swing. Trees and flowers are blooming. Birds are getting ready to fly north. Butterflies bring flashes of color to the landscape. Citrus trees are heavy with ripening fruit. And while we don’t have the cold, cold weather seen in so much of the world during Winter, the longer and somewhat warmer days are awakening itchy fingers, ready to plant the warmer season flowers and vegetables. It is a time for growth and renewal.

The readings for this day speak of renewal, of God’s mercy, of recognition of our failings, and of ways to till the gardens of our hearts, making them fertile soil for receiving the gifts our Father has for each of us.

The prophet Joel (2:12-18) spoke at a time of swarms of locusts and a great drought that caused crop failure and famine in the land. This was seen as a time of loss of divine favor due to the sin of the people of Israel. But through Joel’s words, God calls the people back – to conversion through prayer and fasting. The reading concludes with the observation that the Lord took pity of his people, stirred to concern for his land.

Psalm 51 calls on God to be merciful, to wash away our offenses, cleanse us of our guilt, and put a new spirit within us. “A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.” The joy of salvation and a willing spirit come as gifts from God. And we pray, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.” Praise and thanksgiving grow in the soil of a newly renewed heart.

St. Paul, in a second letter to the people of Corinth (2 Cor 5:20-6:2), begs them to be reconciled with God, for the sake of Christ. Christ gave himself so that humans could become the “righteousness of God.” But what is God’s righteousness? God is merciful and gracious. God is slow to anger, rich in kindness, relenting in punishment. These are characteristics of God, revealed by Joel in our first reading. This is the call of the followers, the sisters and brothers of Jesus. To be images of the God who loves and forgives. Again, something that can only grow from within the heart of each person. It doesn’t really come naturally to us.

Finally, Jesus gives us very specific instructions (Mt 6:1-6, 16-18). Summed up briefly: Don’t perform righteous deeds where people can see them! Be discreet in your life of faith. Give of what you have, but do it quietly, secretly. Pray quietly, by yourself. Wash your face, wear your regular clothes. Don’t do anything to draw attention and praise to yourself for your good deeds.

Why not be open and even brazen about doing these good deeds? Shouldn’t we be good examples to others? Because God is hidden and can only really be approached through the heart. God is love. God reaches quietly out to the heart of each and every person. It is only in the garden of the heart, just as it was in the Garden of Eden, that we meet and walk freely with our God. And when we are consistently meeting and walking with our God, there will be a certain something that is attractive about us, something that draws others to walk with God themselves.

“A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.”

Pope Francis has some suggestions for us this year. More challenging than giving up chocolate or TV or desserts, perhaps. Perhaps not. Certainly worth considering. What fertilizer does my inner garden need? What weeds need to be removed? What flowers and fruits will grow from my heart this year.

Welcome to Lent – the season of growth and renewal as we prepare for the great mystery of redemption.

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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

Ash Wednesday: Spiritual R & R – Reconciliation and Renewal

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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