Ash Wdnesday

From Fr. Tony Kadavil:
1) “Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?”
Some of the senior citizens here today can remember a song that was popular exactly 41 years ago. In 1971, a group from Canada called the Five Man Electrical Band had a hit called “Signs.” The song is about how signs are always telling us what to do, and the chorus says, “Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?” Four decades later, the question it poses – “Can’t you read the sign?” — is one we might ask ourselves today. We are going to be signed with ash - the sign of our faith, the cross. “Can’t you read the sign?” The cross of ashes means that we are making a commitment – that we are undertaking Lent as a season of prayer and penitence, of dying to ourselves. It also describes our human condition: it says that we are broken, and need repair; that we are sinners and need redemption. Most importantly, it tells us that, as followers of Jesus Christ, we are to carry our crosses. It also reminds us that we are dust and ashes – mortal human beings carrying an immortal soul. (  
2) Kill the Cyclops in you: The Cyclops is that strange monster of Greek mythology with one big eye in the middle of its forehead. We pretend to ignore the truth that, for 325 days of each year, we are all Cyclopes because there is ONE GREAT BIG “I” right in our heads! If we are skeptical about this assertion, we might watch our words for one day, from morning to night. What’s the first thing we think about each morning? “What am I going to do today? How will I do it? What will happen to me today? How will I feel today?” I, I, I. And all day long, what do we say to people? We say things like, “I think this” and “I think that” and “I agree” and “I disagree” and “I like this” and “I don’t like that” and “I just want to say...” I, I, I. And what’s the last thing that we think about at night? “I wish that so-and-so would stop doing thus-and-such to me” and “I really did a good job today” and “I wonder what I’ll do tomorrow.” The problem with seeing with one eye is that we’re half blind. Everything looks flat and two-dimensional because with only one eye, we have no depth-perception. Consequently, we go wrong in assessing people. In Greek mythology, the Cyclops was killed when Odysseus and four of his men took a spare staff of the Cyclops, hardened its tip in the fire and used that to destroy the monster’s one big eye. It is precisely this that we must do on Ash Wednesday. With two strokes of his thumb smeared with ash on our forehead, the priest will cross that “I” out of our head. By this sacramental ritual we are asked to take that “I” at the front of our mind and cross it out by “self-denial” and “self- mortification.” Doing so will help us to see the beautiful creatures of God all around us and replace “I” with “You." (Condensed from Fr. J. K. Horn)
 3)  A little boy had just returned home from an Ash Wednesday church service. The little girl from next door asked him what the smudge was on his forehead. He replied, "It's Ash Wednesday." "What's Ash Wednesday?" she asked. "Oh," he replied, "It's when Christians begin their diet." 
4)  It was Ash Wednesday, and a woman sifting in a crowded Catholic church, leaned over to the young man next to her and asked: "What is it that brings so many people out on a cold night, to get a little dirt smeared on their foreheads, and to be reminded that they are sinners and that they are going to die?" He looked at her somewhat oddly and said, "It's habit, I guess."
5)  A two-year-old had gone with her family to her church's Ash Wednesday service. She was upset that her mother was not taking her to the altar with the rest of the family. She was overheard exclaiming: "But I want to get a tattoo just like Daddy's!"
2.    From the Connections: 
The readings for this first day of the Lenten journey to Easter call us to turn.
 In Hebrew, the word for repentance is to turn, like the turning of the earth to the sun at this time of year, like the turning of soil before spring planting.  The Lenten journey that begins on this Ash Wednesday calls us to repentance -- to turn away from those things that separate us from God and re-turn to the Lord.
In today’s Gospel, from his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs his listeners on the Christian attitude and disposition toward prayer, fasting and almsgiving.  Such acts are meaningful only if they are outward manifestations of the essential turningthat has taken place within our hearts.
Around 400 B.C., a terrible invasion of locusts ravaged Judah.  The prophet Joel saw this catastrophe as a symbol of the coming “Day of the Lord.”   The prophet summoned the people to repent, to turn to the Lord with fasting, prayer and works of charity. 
In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul alternates between anger and compassion, between frustration and affection in defending his authority and mandate as an apostle in the face of attack by some members of the Corinthian community.  In today’s second reading, the apostle appeals for reconciliation among the members of the community, for a re-turn to the one faith shared by the entire Church.

Nowadays the cost of a dinner and a movie keeps going up, and a vacation can be especially expensive, but if I really want to go somewhere I just take the change out of my pocket and lay it on the desk. It's like a time machine. Each coin has a year stamped on it, and just thinking about the year helps me travel back in my memory.

1979 is the year my first son was born and the year I started in ministry. 1981 and 1983 are the years my daughter and second son were born. 1988 is the last time the Dodgers won the pennant. 1990 was when I moved to Indiana from Los Angeles. 1994 and 2004 were the years I turned forty and fifty. 2002 was when I moved to Pennsylvania. And it's getting harder to find, but any coin with 1954 is my birth year.

I enjoy laying out the change in my pocket and just glancing at the dates. It's nice to carry these little reminders of important events, good and bad. But they're just one kind of reminder. We carry all sorts of reminders around. One of the most obvious is our date book, which we use to remind us of important events that are not in the past but in the future. We especially need a reminder for Ash Wednesday. It comes in the middle of nowhere. It's not like Christ­mas or Independence Day that fall on the same dates every year. Ash Wednesday is all over the map, from early February to some­time in March. What usually happens is that we notice someone with a smudge on their forehead and suddenly realize: was that today? Really, it's not very convenient. The least Ash Wednesday could do is fall on a Sunday. 

It is an interruption. And it's an unwelcome reminder of an unpleasant fact. Dust we are and to dust we shall return. The grass withers and the flower fades....
A story appeared on Facebook recently about a person who went to a concert. At the end of the concert, this person noticed two ushers standing near his seat who were applauding harder than anybody else in the whole place. 

The man said he was thrilled with this particular concert because of the talent and virtuosity of the musicians. It also impressed him greatly to see these two ushers standing there applauding more vigorously than all of the concert goers. His experience was somewhat diminished, however, when he heard one usher say to the other, "Keep clapping. If we can get them to do another encore, we get overtime!"

I thought about these ushers when I read our lesson for today from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says, "Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

"So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

"When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." 

What can we conclude from Christ's words? One thing is obvious--Jesus didn't like hypocrites. He didn't like people who put on a show of religiosity, even if they do it under the guise of doing good. Nobody likes a person who preaches one thing and practices something else...
The Lord's Prayer: A Walking Prayer

Every evening I walk three miles as part of my losing campaign against high blood pressure and my imperialistic waist line. I generally don't wear an iPod, because I prefer to take my exercise without anesthesia. (I enjoy the sounds of nature, and I want to be able to hear the cars honk before they run me over.) Sometimes I devote the time to prayer, and I have found that the Lord's Prayer makes a good outline. Here's how I do it:

I address God as my Father by adoption through the grace of Jesus Christ and give thanks for His salvation. 

I pledge to keep His name holy in all my conduct. I remind Him of ways I have done this in the past, and ask Him forgiveness for all the ways I have failed to do so as well.

I ask that His will be done, here on earth through me, as efficiently as it is done by His angels in heaven. I give examples of how I think I could do that; I ask His guidance and pledge my obedience.

I ask for my material needs for the day, itemizing and discussing them. I give thanks for specific instances of His providence in the past.

I ask forgiveness, but only to the degree I am willing to forgive others. If I have a problem, I discuss it in detail.

If I am facing any particular temptations, I discuss them and ask God to help me resist them. If I have recently survived any tough tests, I discuss them and thank God that He gave me the power to overcome them. 

I tell God about the evil things that frighten me, and ask Him to deliver me from them. I also give thanks for past rescues. 

You get the idea. When you pray like this, it's amazing how time flies!

Kenneth W. Collins, Praying
"And When You Pray"

Jesus taught his disciples, saying: And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:5-6)

Prayer -- just the word elicits a wide variety of responses and feelings. Everything from the most pious of responses to the most piteous of excuses, the concept and practice of prayer has evoked much writing and discussion in Christian circles down through the ages. Most of us would profess fairly easily that we believe prayer is important. Most of us would have to confess, perhaps not so easily, that we do not pray as we should.

As we begin our Lenten pilgrimage this day, let us begin with prayer. And I mean that both literally and figuratively. Let us begin where Jesus always seemed to begin every venture and effort, with prayer. It is one of the Lenten disciplines espoused by the religious for years. But it is more than just a discipline. So let us take some time, as we begin our Lent, to explore what prayer is, or is not. 

Part of the problem, I suspect, about our failure to pray more frequently is our feeling uncomfortable in prayer. We don't seem to know "how to" pray. 

And because we get all hung up in the "how to" part, feeling inadequate for the task, embarrassed by the act, unable to address God as we feel we should, many of us simply don't. We don't pray. 

Well, let's lay to rest the "how to" part right away. I found a wonderful poem that will help us put that issue into its right perspective. Listen to "Cyrus Brown's Prayer" by Sam Walter Foss:

"The proper way for man to pray,"
Said Deacon Lemuel Keyes,
"And the only proper attitude,
Is down upon his knees."
 "No, I should say the way to pray,"
Said Reverend Dr. Wise,
"Is standing straight with outstretched arms, And rapt and upturned eyes."
"Oh, no, no, no!" said Elder Slow,
"Such posture is too proud;
A man should pray with eyes fast closed, And head contritely bowed."

 "It seems to me his hands should be
Austerely clasped in front.
With both thumbs pointing toward the ground,"
Said Reverend Dr. Blunt. 

"Las' year I fell in Hodgkin's well
Head first," said Cyrus Brown.
"With both my heels a-stickin' up,
My head a-pointin' down;
"An' I made a prayer right then an' there... 

Glenn E. Ludwig, Walking To...Walking With...Walking Through, CSS Publishing Company
Looking with Magic Eyes 

In 1983 Mehmet Ali Agca was in the midst of the crowd in St. Peter's Square. He pulled a gun out of his pocket and tried to assassinate Pope John Paul II. He was arrested and imprisoned. In January 1984 the Pope visited the prison, and when he walked through the cell door, he said to the young man, "I forgive you."

The papers in the city of Rome made much of it, but one editorial writer made a significant statement. "Of course the Pope forgives the man who tried to kill him. After all, he is the Pope, and forgiveness is his business." 

Strangely enough, what he said about the Pope is true about us. Forgiveness is the business of every Christian. But forgiveness is scarce in our culture, although it is terribly needed. We bury the hatchet with people, but then we keep a road map of exactly where we buried it. We put our resentments in cold storage, but we're ready to let them thaw out again whenever we need them. We take grudges down to the lake to drown them, but we remember the location in the water so we can find them again. We take the cancelled note, tear it up and say, "They don't owe us anything anymore," but we hang onto the wastebasket. We talk about forgiveness more than we forgive.

William L. Self, Magic Eyes
Let Us Play

My dear friends, let us play. Yes, you heard me correctly. Now is a time for play. In fact, today the church begins that time of the year when we do our most serious playing.

And playing is a serious business, you know. Ask any teacher of children. Better still, watch children at play. No wonder they are tired at the end of the day. They work hard at playing. They take it seriously.

Play is the child's laboratory for learning about life. Children who have never played at being grown-up tend to be handicapped in some way when they have to confront the actual experience. Boys who have never been allowed to play with dolls can hardly be expected to hold their own infants with ease and loving confidence. It has to be a later learning if it is ever learned at all. Play may be a more valuable tool for learning than all the educational resources manufactured by the professionals.

That is why, on this Ash Wednesday, the church summons us to a season of play. Our Lord has told us, if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven, we must become as little children. And one of childhood's most important occupations is play.

Am I wrong in my impression, however, that most of us do not come to church to play, that play is the furthest thing from our minds? Play seems foreign to our understanding of religion, and if it is to be found in church at all, it is best restricted to the nursery and the carefully supervised activities of the youth groups. H.L. Mencken defined a puritan as a person with the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy. I know the puritan still comes to church with me from time to time. What about you?

Kendall K. McCabe and Michael L. Sherer, CSS Publishing Company

Recharging Your Batteries 

An Italian newspaper recently carried a story about a young couple in Milan who seemed particularly devoted in their worship. The priest at a cathedral there reported that the pair spent an hour or more on a regular basis sitting before a statue of the Virgin Mary. Naturally, he assumed they were praying.

Turns out, this young couple was recharging their cell phone. They had noticed a stray electric cable sticking out of the wall behind the statue of the Virgin Mary. Whenever their phone's power supply dwindled, the young couple came to the church and re-charged it from the cable behind the Virgin Mary. The priest states that the young couple is welcome to use his church for this purpose.

We talk about coming to church to "re-charge our batteries," but this is ridiculous. What looked to the unobservant eye like an act of piety was actually a self-serving ploy to save money. This young couple was using the church for their own needs. And we're shocked, shocked, I tell you--until we realize that we may be guilty of the same mistake.

King Duncan, Collected Sermons, 

A Walking Children's Sermon 

The Rev. Timothy J. Kennedy tells a wonderful true story that is perfect for Ash Wednesday. It was told to him by a colleague, Pastor Chris Mietlowski. It concerned a baptism that Mietlowski once performed on an infant named Eric. Mietlowski took Eric in his arms and traced the cross of Christ on Eric's forehead using a special anointing oil.  

Following worship, Eric's family celebrated with a big backyard party. Family and friends ate burgers and chips and played volleyball under a summer sun. Eric, being only six months old, was left to nap in his backyard stroller. When Mom got him up, whoops. Basted on Eric's forehead was the image of the cross. Mom had forgotten to wash Eric's face following his baptism, and the oil that the pastor had traced onto his forehead acted the opposite of a sun screen. The Cross of Christ was imprinted on Eric's forehead. "For several weeks until it completely disappeared," says Rev. Kennedy, "that cross was a wonderful reminder as to the meaning of Baptism and a reminder that the Cross of Jesus was 'written' upon Eric's forehead."

And what a powerful witness it was, says Rev. Kennedy. "Eric's Mom and Dad had to explain the cross to the pediatrician, to the neighbors, to the stranger in the grocery store. For a few weeks, Eric was nothing less than a [living] children's sermon. It was only a bit of a sunburn to be sure, but [it was] the best basting a child can have to be marked with the cross of Christ! And why not? That cross is to be the foundation of that child's life."

If I read the little book of Joel right, God's desire is not that we wear a cross on our forehead, but that it be basted on our hearts. "Rend your heart and not your garments," says Joel 2:23. That's much harder to do, isn't it? It's much easier to rend your clothes than to rend your heart. It's much easier to wear a cross around your neck than it is to bear it daily in everything you do.  

Timothy J. Kennedy, adapted by King Duncan
"Some Christians jump all over the room;
Others are as solemn and quiet as a tomb.
Some lift their hands high in the air,
But others wouldn't, even on a dare.
Christians are different in style and in song;
But if they are humble, to Christ they belong."

Pancake Day  

Every once in a while a whimsical story makes the news. A couple of years ago, the Associated Press carried a story about a woman in Olney, England, named Dawn Gallyot who defied snow and a biting wind to beat seven other women to the finish line in the annual Shrove Tuesday pancake race. In her first race, the 38-year-old schoolteacher made the 415-yard dash from a pub in the market square to the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul with a pancake and a frying pan in her hand in 73 seconds. That was 9.5 seconds slower than the previous year's pace. Each woman must flip a pancake in the frying pan at the start and at the finish of the race. The record is 58 seconds. Mrs. Gallyot reportedly wore a traditional headscarf and apron, but opted for modern running shoes. 

Shrove Tuesday, known in England as Pancake Day, is traditionally the last day for merrymaking before the start of Lent. Pancakes are thought to be a good way to get in the eggs and fat that faithful church people were supposed to give up for Lent. Legend has it that the Olney race started in 1445 when a housewife, dashing to get to church on time, arrived at the service clutching in her hand a frying pan with a pancake still in it.

The pancake race is but one of many traditions that have grown up around the season of Lent. New Orleans' Mardi Gras is another - one last blowout before a season of denial. Throughout the years, Lent has become associated with fasting and denial. Even today many people talk about giving up something during Lent. Some stop eating meat. Some give up coffee. For others it's chocolate or desserts. And that's all well and good, but the real intent of Lent is that should we look within. We should change our hearts and not our diets.  

Lee Griess, Return to The Lord, Your God, CSS Publishing Company
Ash Wednesday 

Ash Wednesday is the first day of the penitential season of Lent. Its true name is actually not "Ash Wednesday" but "The Day of Ashes." Whichever name is used, the reference to ashes comes from the ceremony of placing ashes on the forehead in the shape of the cross as a sign of penitence. This custom was introduced by Pope Gregory I, who was Bishop of Rome from to 590 A.D. to 604 A.D. It was enacted as a universal practice in all of Western Christendom by the Synod of Benevento in 1091 A.D.