you called us forth from the dust of the earth;
you claimed us for Christ in the waters of Baptism.
Look upon us as we enter these Forty Days
bearing the mark of ashes,
and bless our journey through the desert of Lent
to the font of rebirth.
May our fasting be hunger for justice;
our alms, a making of peace;
our prayer, the chant of humble and grateful hearts.
All that we do and pray is in the name of Jesus
for in his Cross you proclaim your love
for ever and ever.
(Catholic Household Blessing & Prayers)
"For gracious and merciful is he"
Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-18
As much as I enjoy movies with a good story, I’ve always thought the Oscar’s were a bit self- serving, to say the least. We should recognize acting as a talent and every actor knows that the person they are portraying is not who they truly are. But, the academy awards are given to recognize an actor who has portrayed a fictional character or some noted historical figure in a convincing and hopefully somewhat inspiring way. It does indeed take a particular talent to become the person you are presenting in a way that makes that person believable. Few actors are able to do that convincingly but those who can are awarded for their skill and hard work.
But, who is deciding who deserves the award? Those involved in the movie industry. A kind of Hollywood telling Hollywood how wonderful Hollywood is. In a true sense, however, they would be the ones who know what they’re looking for and recognize the skill it truly takes. Doctors could rate other doctors of course based on their knowledge of medicine; teachers the same for other teachers, etc. You have to be experienced enough in the art yourself to recognize true talent when you see it in others. So, when the Oscar is given to the recognize actor, applause, music, and multiple kudos of adoration come their way. The name(s) is announced and they receive their reward – all adoring eyes upon them.
Today we begin season of Lent. Our yearly six week journey of self-reflection, penance, renewal, and a turning back to the Lord in order to “clean house” before the fifty days of Easter glory celebrating the resurrection of the Lord. It really is a season of grace in which we are called back to be the best version of who we should be in the eyes of God. Unlike movie stars, this is not a time to put on the act. It is a time to take off the costume and come before God as our true selves that we may put aside barriers, change our wandering ways, admit our need for repentance, and embrace the forgiveness and mercy of a loving God.
Our familiar Gospel passage from Matthew is read each year on Ash Wednesday. It is not one that would be especially favored by the Hollywood dignitaries on Oscar night: “. . . do not blow a trumpet before you . . . do not let your left hand know what your right is doing. . . that your almsgiving may be secret . . . go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret . . . wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting . . .” Such warnings against making oneself the center of attention and praise have deep spiritual implications that would be the opposite of a glittering Oscar night and acting in general.
It seems to me that if we follow Jesus’ advice our intentions would undeniably be more pure and pleasing to God. Why? Because we are not undertaking works of penance an charity in order to be noticed by others. Jesus reminds his disciples this is what the Pharisees do, that’s what the pagans do. It’s all about them. They go through all the motions to appear to be something or someone they are not. They are consummate actors and they seem to do so convincingly. They’re just putting on a show the whole point of which is to receive praise, not holiness. Don’t follow their example.
So, the true spirit of this graced season of Lent is to be genuine and humble before God and others. We’re not acting here. Humility is a far more attractive virtue than pride. Genuine charity from another, done in a sincere way, is more beautiful than a face filled with makeup or the most elaborate costume. A very generous donation to a worthy cause done anonymously has greater value than all the plaques and buildings that may bear the name of a noted benefactor.
So, it’s often a balance in our lives. I’m all for a good movie, a suspenseful plot and fine acting but in the end it’s all pretend. What you see on the screen does not exist except in the computer generated image of a creative technician: special effects. The wonderful and worldwide acclaim of the Downton Abbey series a few years back was deserved. We began to look forward to the unfolding story of the Aristocratic English families each season. The problem, though, is that they did not exist. There is no Downton Abbey. I think I make my point. A world of fantasy or fiction is fine as long as we know the difference between that and reality. Lent is that opportunity to strip away the façade, put on ashes as a reminder of our frailty, and get real.
So, this Lent, let’s be real. Let’s work on being our true selves before God and come before him not seeking notice and praise before others but to receive his ever redeeming grace and mercy. If true change happens in our life over the next six weeks it will not be because of how many prayers I said or how many days I fasted or even how much money I may have donated to a particular charity.
While all these things are very good for they open doors of grace within us. They help us to put a leash on our wandering. If we have become a new creation in Christ it is by his grace that we were disposed to receive. True holiness is what God does with us and what he makes us to become pleasing in his sight. Our reward may not be a shining gold statue but rather, eternal life.