Lent begins today, Ash Wednesday, under a fair gathering of clouds. The economy is weak and a large number of people are out of work or otherwise struggling financially.
Amid this storm, we come to the 40 days of Lenten fast and reflection, which can actually provide a measure of peace and repose. It is time to separate our hearts and minds from an overconcern with material things, important as some of them may be, and fix our attention on what will last -- forever.
"Remember you are dust and to dust you will return ... Repent and believe in the Gospel."
These are the words the priest says as he administers the black dash of ash on our foreheads. In a thriving economy, these may sound like unneeded (and certainly widely unheeded) negative sentiments.But now that so much has gone wrong with the gears of the material world, and the cash flow that fuels it, it may be time to reflect on the meaning of these words.
"Remember ..." The word here means not simply to acknowledge or recall but to think about and reflect upon the fact of death -- and not just death in general, but my particular and personal death. Memento in the Latin.
Call to mind that you are human, enfleshed, mortal, due one day to die. Where are you now in relation to God? Where are you headed? Do you need to change course? How do you begin? If you keep your death in mind, and know that you will face God's judgment, you will be careful not to sin.
"Repent ..." The first step is to identify your sin, what you have done wrong. This means you must reflect on your thoughts, words and deeds -- you must examine your conscience.
Sure, you haven't killed anyone, but have you spoken in anger to hurt another? The Bible says that anyone who does that has killed his brother in spirit.
You haven't cheated on your wife, but have you looked at another woman with lust, even if you say you'd never act out your thoughts? Jesus says that doing this is to commit adultery in your heart.
A great priest once told me that when I have trouble thinking of my sins, I should simply start by reflecting on the Great Commandment: Have I loved God with all my heart and my neighbor as myself? Sins soon come to mind.
Yet repenting is more than knowing your sins. You must tell God you are sorry, make a firm purpose of amendment, and promise not to sin again. And you must make amends to the persons you have hurt, if possible.
Lenten reflection, and the prayer, fasting and almsgiving that should come with the season, are meant to direct us to greater love -- of God and of neighbor. We can do this at any time, in good times or bad. This is God's way to the riches of heaven.