While lots of folks are able to get to church on Ash Wednesday, even more cannot. So, especially for those who could not be present, here are the Mass readings for today. Before turning to them, however, we might consider the nature of the season of Lent itself.
Every Lent, as we sing about “these forty days” and refer to “the forty days” of Lent, we get questions: “Why are there more than forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter?” “Do the Sundays of Lent ‘count’ as days of Lent?” “Do we ‘count’ Holy Week as part of Lent?” All of these questions, and so many more, reflect a misplaced understanding of the significance of the number “40” itself. By looking at it so literalistically, trying to treat it as a kind of math problem, we miss the fundamental point.
Like other ancient languages, the letters that make up the alef-bet (“alphabet”) of the Hebrew language do double duty. Consider the letters of the Latin language first as an example. When we see “I” or “V” or “XII” we see both literal and numerical meanings: the letter “I” or the (Roman) numeral for “1”; the letter “v” or the numeral for “5”; the letters “x – i – i” or the numeral for “12”, and so on.
Hebrew letters do the same kind of thing, but there is a kind of TRIPLE duty involved: the literal, the numerical, and the symbolical. Hebrew numbers have symbolic meaning: 1 is a Divine number, as is 3. The number 2 represents life and strength; the number 4 represents the universe created by YHWH. 3 plus 4, in Hebrew numerology represents the union of the God with God’s creation, making 7 a perfect number. 3 times 4 (12) represents God’s own community. Since 7 is perfection, 6 represents IMPERFECTION or SIN, since it just doesn’t quite “make the mark” of getting to 7. Consider some examples: YHWH is always emphasized as ONE God; the animals go into the Ark 2 by 2; 3 is a divine number — not in the later Christian sense of Trinity, but Divine nonetheless. The 12 tribes of Israel. And on and on, including the number 40. The people wander in the desert for 40 years; the rains of the great flood last for 40 days and 40 nights. We see these things carried forward into Christian Scripture as well. The very first thing that the apostles have to do following the Resurrection is select a replacement for Judas in order to return their number to 12! Jesus goes to the desert himself for 40 days where he is tempted.
The number 40 is used to designate a period of human preparation and testing in readiness for a MISSION which follows. After the Israelites wander in the desert for 40 years, the enter the Promised Land; after the rains stop, YHWH and Noah enter into a whole new covenant; after his own sojourn in the desert, Jesus embarks on his public ministry as the Christ. So the period of time represented by “40” always points to what is to come: a renewal of covenant relationships as we enter into a new phase of mission.
That’s the role of the forty days of Lent: it is not a goal in and of itself. It is to be a time of preparation for whatever the Lord is calling us to be and to do after Easter! How are we being formed for post-Easter mission? Just as we refer to Lent as the period of Purification and Enlightenment for the candidates for sacramental initiation at the Eastern Vigil, so too it is for the rest of us as well. This is a time of spiritual “boot camp” in which we are refined, formed and empowered for the mission to come.
So we come to today’s readings. The prophet Joel proclaims:
Even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.
While we often talk about the external things we’re “going to give up” for Lent, Joel reminds us that the true purpose is the journey back to the Lord God “with our whole heart.” External observances, while they can be important, are not nearly as important as our internal conversion: “rend your hearts, not your garments.”
Matthew makes the same point in the Gospel:
Take care not to perform righteous deeds
in order that people may see them;
otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.
Whether in giving alms, praying, or fasting, the conversion to God is internal and not the result of “doing” the right things during Lent. Unless the outward observance reflects an internal “return to the Lord with your whole heart” we have missed the point!
But then there’s that whole “40 days” thing to consider. How does this interior conversion prepare us for the mission to come? Pope Francis, in his Ash Wednesday homily earlier today, issued the challenge:
We run the risk of closing ourselves to others also: we risk forgetting them, too – but only when the difficulties and sufferings of our brothers challenge us, only then we can start our journey of conversion towards Easter. It is an itinerary that includes the cross and sacrifice. Today’s Gospel shows the elements of this spiritual journey: prayer , fasting and almsgiving (cf. Mt 6,1-6.16-18 ). All three involve the need not to be dominated by the appearance of things: the appearance of things does not matter – nor does the value of life depend on the approval of others or on success, but from how much we have inside. . . .
With its calls to conversion, Lent comes providentially to rouse us, to shake us from our torpor, from the risk of moving forward [merely] by inertia. The exhortation that the Lord speaks to us through the prophet Joel is loud and clear: “Return to me with all your heart” (Joel 2:12). Why must we return to God? Because something is wrong in us, in society, in the Church – and we need to change, to turn things around, to repent! Once again Lent comes to make its prophetic appeal, to remind us that it is possible to realize something new within ourselves and around us, simply because God is faithful, continues to be full of goodness and mercy, and is always ready to forgive and start over from scratch. With this filial confidence, let us set out on our way!
Blessed Lenten journey to all!