Hoping to Turn
Ash Wednesday | Fr Gregory Murphy explains that during Lent, out of the ashes of our failures and timidities, the fire of God’s love can be kindled.
The first preface of Lent reminds us that by God’s gracious gift, this time is given us so that with minds made pure, more eagerly intent on prayer and the works of charity we may be led to the fulness of the joy God wishes to give us. And it demands a response – the reading from Joel is full of urgency: we are to come back with all our hearts, the community is to be called together, all of them, even small children, even those like bride and bridegroom normally left undisturbed. For, as Paul reminds the Corinthians, here and now is the favourable time, the day of salvation. Here, now, is our opportunity to turn back to God.
And yet, in my experience at least, the reality of Lent in practice is rather less exciting – a bit of mild penance, some token effort at giving more time to prayer, less to immediate self-gratification, and more to those in need. A sort of spiritual gym session, enabling us to feel slightly better about ourselves but not fundamentally changing anything. As the poet T. S. Eliot puts it at the beginning and end of his Ash Wednesday sequence, “Because I do not hope to turn … Although I do not hope to turn/although I do not hope …”. How often we begin with good intentions and then stall.
Perhaps our lack of success points to our unwillingness to be disturbed, to decisively accept the invitation God is extending to us, because we are too much tied to our false securities, the idols we have constructed. We need to learn how we might free ourselves from all that holds us back from God, and the way to do that is to die to self, to that false self that in its insecurity recoils from others and from God into the idolatry of self-sufficiency.
Jesus takes it for granted that his disciples will pray, will fast, and will give alms. These were important aspects of Jewish religious life in Jesus’ time. What he is criticising is the ostentatious displays of what should be private religious acts. That is, even these good practices can be corrupted if they are performed in such a way that they are done to boost our pride, our egos. Following the way of the Lord Jesus is to learn to sit lightly to the things of this world, for all their beauty and goodness, to refuse to be trapped into setting our hearts on anything less than the love of God.
Let our hearts be broken, purged from their idols.
Giving more time to prayer helps us re-sensitise ourselves to seeing things from God’s perspective, from the perspective that privileges the marginalised and the lost. Becoming more sensitive to the needs of others as we become less enslaved to our own desires, our minds purified, helps us more eagerly show charity, show that selfless, self-giving love to others that Jesus showed us was possible if we, like him, live lives orientated to God and are empowered by God’s Spirit. Out of the ashes of our failures and timidities the fire of God’s love can be kindled, enlivening us with the love and life of God, accepting the gifts he pours out on us and moving closer into his embrace, our love of him expressed in our love of our neighbours in their need.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of palm branches being burnt to make ashes for Ash Wednesday.