Friday, February 20, 2015

Ash Wednesday

    Starting on Ash Wednesday, we have forty days (not counting Sundays) to prepare for Easter—that is, to prepare for the most sacred day of the year—the day when we celebrate God’s greatest gift to us: eternal life.
Traditionally, the Church spends this time in fasting and prayer, in mortification and repentance for our sins, so that when Easter comes, we are aware in some small way of the magnitude of Christ’s gift to us, of our own unworthiness to receive that gift, and of the depth of gratitude and awe that we should feel on that day when we relive in the most literal sense the Resurrection of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.  So this is a great gift that we are preparing to receive; but on Ash Wednesday, we focus on what we have to offer Christ.  We ask ourselves “What gift can I bring to him?”  It’s an impossible question, really, because Jesus Christ is Lord of all Creation.  All that we have belongs to him already.  What do you get for the man who has everything?
     A story is told of St. Jerome that he had a vision in which Our Lord came to him and asked him
Saint Jerome Having His Vision
for a gift.  St. Jerome said, “Well, I’ve been a bishop for a long time now, and I’ve sacrificed a lot to do that job well.”
     “Yes,” said Jesus, “I am very pleased with that, but is there nothing else you have to offer me?” 
     “Well, I’ve built several Churches in my time.  Perhaps you’ll find those pleasing as well.” 
     “I do,” said Jesus, “ but don’t you have anything else to give me?” 
     “Ah,” said St. Jerome, “I’ve got something for you.  I translated the entire book of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin.” 
     “And for that I am well pleased,” answered Jesus,  “But surely you have something else to offer me.” 
     And the discussion went on like that until finally, St. Jerome said, “You know what?  I can’t think of anything else.” 
     And Jesus replied, “Jerome, my friend, you have forgotten to offer me your sins.”
     Not long ago, one of our older monks celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of his solemn profession of vows.  There was a big party, and all the people who love him showed up.  And they all brought presents.  Now after the party, I was talking to this monk, and I said, “Congratulations, Father, but I’m afraid I have nothing to give you for your anniversary.”  To which he responded, “Nothing?  You’re giving me nothing?  Why, that’s just what I’ve always wanted!”
     Indeed, there is nothing we have that wasn’t given to us in the first place.  So the only thing we have that really belongs to us is our sin—and irony of ironies, this is the one thing that Christ really wants from us.  So on Ash Wednesday, we remind ourselves of our mortality.  We remind ourselves that "we are dust and to dust we shall return".  And then we think about our sins, and with great joy, we bring them to Christ as a gift, wrapped up in repentance.