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by Stephen Bevans, SVD | February 21, 2012

Scripture Reflection for Ash Wednesday (February 22, 2012)

Scripture Readings:
Joel 2:12-18
Psalm 51
2 Corinithians 5:20-6:2
Matthew 6:1-6; 16-18

“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.
For gracious and merciful is God,
Slow to anger, rich in kindness,
And relenting in punishment.”

In her short introduction to Lent in one of her commentaries on the Sunday readings, Sister Dianne Bergant suggests that our focus on Lent should be much more on God’s love that is so manifest in the readings of the season, and much less on our human unworthiness and sinfulness.

We are, of course, unworthy. All of us have sinned in one way or another. All of us have done or still do selfish things. All of us, I dare say, are caught up in the social sins of racism, sexism, and many other “isms” into which our societies and cultures thrust us. All of us, probably, are guilty of neglecting our planet’s welfare and of not seeing ourselves as a mere part of the vast cosmos. Many of us are in relationships that are strained, or perhaps broken beyond repair.  But what I think Sister Dianne is getting at is that the only way we can really return to God with our whole hearts, the only way that fasting, and weeping and mourning makes sense, the only way we can rend our hearts, not our garments, is to realize, as the first letter of John says, that God loved us first, and that when our hearts condemn us, to realize that God is greater than our hearts (1Jn 4:10 and 3:21). Or, as Paul said to the Romans, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). Yes, we need to be reconciled to God, as Paul begs the Corinthians in our second reading, but as Bob Schreiter always points out, WE don’t do the reconciling. Reconciliation comes about when we recognize that God has taken the first step. “For gracious and merciful is God, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment.” “For our sakes God made him who did not know sin to be sin, so that in him we might become the very righteousness of God.” (Paul uses diakosune—perhaps better “to live in right relationship to God.”)

We begin Lent today, this season of putting on ashes, rending our hearts, being reconciled, converting, repenting. What we need to remember, though, is that the root of all these ideas is wonderfully expressed in the Greek word that the evangelists put on Jesus’ lips: metanoieite—literally, change our minds, change your way of thinking. I love the explanation that the Canadian novelist Rudy Wiebe gives for the word repentance. You repent,” Wiebe says, “not by feeling bad, but by thinking different.” I say this a lot in my classes, and to me it means that repentance is about discovering a new way to imagine God, ourselves, and the world—that God’s love is greater and more powerful than we could ever imagine, and that the world that God has in mind for us and our world is more wonderful and amazing that we could ever dream of. Recently I ran across a line from the great spiritual classic The Cloud of Unknowing that reads: “It is not what you are, nor what you have been, that God sees with all-merciful eyes, but what you desire to be”—or perhaps we could say “what you imagine yourself to be.”

This is what Lent is about—re-imagining our possibilities as we open ourselves to God’s love. Jesus talks about God “rewarding” us, but the reward is not something that we earn. It’s just there. Our practices of almsgiving—being aware of others—prayer—being thankful for God’s love and understanding of our weakness—and fasting—not just from food, as the Poet Robert Herrick says, but “…to fast from strife, / From old debate /And hate;… /To show a heart grief-rent/ To starve thy sin, / Not bin”—these practices should both be responses to the reward that God offers, and ways to prepare us to receive even more of their riches. Matthew’s Jesus calls them practices of diakosune—translated in the lectionary as  “righteous deeds,” perhaps better be translated “acts of right relationship.”

Lent is the new chance. It’s a time to re-imagine who God is and what we can be. Now is the acceptable time, Paul says, now is the day of salvation. Be reconciled with God. God is already reconciled with you!

Author information Stephen Bevans, SVD

Stephen Bevans is currently Louis J. Luzbetak, S.V.D., Professor of Mission and Culture at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, USA and the Faculty Moderator for Catholics on Call. He is a Roman Catholic priest in the Society of the Divine Word, an international missionary congregation, and served for nine years (1972-1981) as a missionary in the Philippines.

His publications include: Models of Contextual Theology (2002), Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (2004, with Roger Schroeder), Evangelization and Freedom (2009, with Jeffrey Gros), and Introduction to Theology in Global Perspective (2009).

He is past president of the American Society of Missiology (2006) and past member of the board of directors of the Catholic Theological Society of America (2007-2009). In 2009 he was visiting lecturer at Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne, Australia, and in 2013 he was the only Catholic to speak at a Plenary at the Tenth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Busan, Korea.

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