Currently, the Bishops Conference Department for Evangelisation and Catechesis is running a project for Lent 2023 in which various bishops have been invited to contribute short reflections about the Gospels of Lent. I have been asked to supply a reflection, given here, for Ash Wednesday, which this year falls on 22nd February.
Some scientific experiments, such as in quantum physics, are complex because of the ‘observer effect.’ The presence of an observer changes the behaviour of what is observed. It would be like the BBC coming into your home with their cameras to do some filming. I’m sure everyone in the family would be watching their ps and qs!
Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent, a season of personal and communal renewal. The Church undertakes Lent in order to accompany Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem to his Death and Resurrection. In Him, we die to sin; in Him we rise to life. Lent invites us to die to sin and all that is not right, in order to rise in Him to a renewed way of living. That’s why the Church uses ashes. Ashes remind us of our mortality, that ‘you are dust and to dust you shall return’ (Gen 3: 19) and that we need to ‘repent and believe in the Gospel’ (Mark 1: 15). The Christian life is an unending combat. Fighting against evil in ourselves, dying to self to live for God, struggling against selfishness and injustice in self and others, is the ascetic journey every disciple is called to make generously.
As a child, I used to think Lent was a time to give things up, such as not eating chocolate or sweets. Easter Sunday was great, when gorging on Easter eggs, life could get back to normal! Yet the word Lent comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Lencten’ (‘when the days lengthen’). It means Springtime. Lent is a spiritual springtime. It’s a joyful season, as the Roman Liturgy puts it, a time when God wants to give us new grace and new life. St. Leo and the Fathers of the Church remind us that there are three works to undertake in Lent, not just self-denial, but works of prayer – particularly going to Confession and attending Mass – and almsgiving, works of justice and charity, helping the poor and needy. Jesus refers to these works in today’s Gospel (Mt 6: 1-6, 16-18). These works are our response to God’s gift, to bring about a fresh start.
Thinking again of the ‘observer effect,’ this Lent, I’d like to suggest we try something. Let us examine how we ‘come over’ to others, how we relate to them, the attitudes we show to certain people, the impact our personality makes on others, the good or the bad effect we have on those around us. Like those experiments in physics, it’s not always easy to work it out. Do I bring joy to others – or pain? Do I put others at ease – or make them feel uneasy? Do I show kindness to others – or indifference? Yet ‘we are ambassadors for Christ,’ St. Paul tells us, and ‘now is the favourable time; now is the day of salvation’ (2 Cor 6: 2). Self-awareness is not easily achieved: if only it were as simple as inviting the TV cameras into your home! But unless in prayer we try, we’ll never grow in holiness; we’ll never become the sort of person God wants us to be; we’ll never grasp the Lenten promise of new life and resurrection.