Today’s Gospel reading reminds me of a story about an early Roman martyr sentenced to death in the Roman circus. After she had been wounded by a wild animal, she lay on the ground bleeding as she awaited the sword of a Roman centurion who was to put her to death. Before the centurion struck her, this woman reached out, removed his ring of office, dipped it in her blood, and replaced it on his finger. In her last moments on earth, this martyr used her energy to turn the symbol of this centurion’s office, the very thing that marked him as holding power in Rome, into a relic of her martyrdom and an instrument of God’s grace. This beautiful, glorious woman reached out in mercy and meekness to her persecutor and secured his salvation. For as the story ends, this centurion too became Christian, and he too was martyred.
In today’s readings, the Lord masterfully displays the meaningfulness of the works of mercy and the law of love during this season of Lent. In the first reading, Queen Esther, a beloved royal daughter of the Father, begs the Lord in the midst of trouble, “Help me, who am alone and have no help but you” and “come to help me, an orphan.” We all resonate with these cries from the heart! Like Queen Esther, we, too, cry for justice and mercy! Stemming from a similar experience, the Psalmist, too, cries from the heart and exclaims, “Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me.” In a world where there is much suffering and injustices occurring daily, even in our own homes and relationships, we all cry for help, “Come Lord, please help me!” However, we are not abandoned! God answers by building up strength within us! How?
"A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn." The liturgy of Ash Wednesday, which opens the Church's Lenten season, proposes two formulae for the imposition of ashes. One reads, "Repent and believe in the Gospel," the other one that can be used says "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return." In sync with the penitential character of Lent, today's first reading from the Book of Jonah speaks of repentance and the merciful love of God. We see how the Ninevites repented of their sinful ways upon hearing Jonah's preaching. Their king proclaimed a fast; they entreated the Lord with contrite hearts, and with many prayers and supplications, they sought out God's forgiveness. The Lord decided not to chastise the city and its inhabitants upon seeing how they had turned away from their wretched ways.
Today’s readings inspire us to trust God even more deeply. Through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord tells us that His word will not return to Him void, but that it will achieve the end for which He sent it. The Lord is always speaking to us, and we can trust that as long as we are attentive to His word, He will continue to direct us towards the end that He desires.
So often we think of Lent as a time to grow closer to God. We were given the tools to do so on Ash Wednesday – prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Other than giving alms these practices seem to focus on our personal relationship with God.
The devil would have Jesus become his son. Enticing Jesus to give up His identity as “Son of God” to trade it in on becoming “Son of Devil”. With each temptation, Jesus shows Himself to be true to His identity as Son of God, resisting the devil’s attempt to have Jesus use His power to prove Himself. As hungry as he is for something to eat, Jesus withstands the devil’s onslaught.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is asked “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus’ answer is memorable: “Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do.” Jesus easily transgressed social boundaries to reach out to those on the margins and peripheries of society who were in the most need of hope brought by his Gospel.
Mercy is to fasting as rain is to the earth, for mercy is the water that nourishes fasting so that it may bear fruit. The prophet Isaiah lifts his voice like a trumpet blast against a fasting that is deprived of mercy. He cries out against an empty show that is not rooted in freeing those hungry for compassion. Why? Because indifference to the one in need wounds, for we are one body, and if one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it.
We are now in the beginning of Lent, a time of conversion and a time of abiding in the Word Jesus. Let us hear this invitation and listen deeply to God's presence within and around us. The reading today from Deuteronomy challenges us to CHOOSE LIFE. "CHOOSE LIFE, then, that you and your descendants may live by loving your God and heeding God's voice." Deut. 30:19
Many a conversation between Catholics today will contain the question: "What are you going to do for Lent this year?" Some will phrase it: "What are you giving up for Lent?" To the latter form my father would always answer, "Watermelon and Grand Opera!" (He didn't care for either one!) The "giving up" part seems to me to be in the "garment rending" category instead of the "heart rending" that the prophet Joel calls for. "Garment rending" seems also to be more public than "heart rending," which Jesus warns about when he says, "Be on guard against doing good deeds where others can see them..." in the gospel scripture for today. This poses a question to me about Ash Wednesday that I confront every year. Those ashes are very public on that day.