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Monday, March 31, 2014

Liturgical Blindness

Yesterday, the Church marked the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Laetare Sunday, as it is properly called.  Laetrae means "rejoice".  Wetb are more than at the half-way point in our Lenten journey.

The music that the Church gives us, the Introit, captures this spirit of rejoicing most eloquently.  We rejoice because we know that the hour of our redemption is near.  "Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and gather round all you who love her; rejoice in gladness, after having been in sorrow; exult and be replenished with the consolation flowing from her motherly bosom."  The corresponding psalm, Psalm 122, speaks of rejoicing when being told "Let us go to the house of the Lord."

The readings echo this joy, as we read about the anointing of the young shepherd David as the new King of Israel.  The failed reign of King Saul led to the hope that David would bring. God saw into David's heart, more deeply than Samuel could ever imagine.   Although David would eventually fall into sin many times, he loved God and knew that God loved him.  That is why he was a man after God's own heart.

The Gospel reading, taken from St. John's account, presented us with the story of Jesus' healing of the man born blind.  In his homily, a priest friend of mine observed that ancient Israel was on to something when it equated illness with sin.  Prior to the Fall, man did not know sickness and death.  After the Fall, Adam and his descendants (that is to say, all of us), fell prey to disease, illness, the aging process and, finally, death.  However, while Ancient Israel equated sickness and disease with death, Jesus pointed out that the man who was born blind did not suffer from his blindness because of sin (Ancient Israel believed that one could sin even in the womb). Jesus said that "the works of God might be made visible" through the blind man.

Jesus spits into the ground and forms clay with his saliva.  Sound familiar?  "In the beginning" is how both Genesis and St. John begin their biblical accounts.  The same God who formed Adam from the clay of the earth now refashions, recreates, the eyes of the man born blind with the clay He has formed with His own saliva.  Then, he sends the man to wash in the pool of Siloam (the word means Sent).  The One who is Sent from the Father is the one who sends the blind man forth.

Now cured, the man experiences something similar to what the Samaritan woman had during her encounter with Jesus.  Both of these encounters have something to do with water.  Jesus asks the Samaritan woman for a drink; Jesus sends the blind man to Siloam to wash the clay off of his eyes.  Both the Samaritan woman and the man born blind experience a profound change and a progressive recognition of who Jesus really is.  They both call him a prophet and then, as their experience of Him deepens, the Samaritan woman calls him the Christ and the formerly blind man bows down to worship Jesus.

As profound as both of these encounters are, somehow, we lose the rich meanings in our liturgies when we choose substandard music.  The Church, as I have often written, gives us the sacred music that is most appropriately conveys what we have just read.  In the case of Laetare Sunday, she provides us with a Communion Antiphon that brings home the point:

Simple English Propers Fourth Sunday of Lent-Communion Antiphon Cycle A

"The Lord made some clay with his spittle, and he spread it over my eyes; and I went forth, I washed myself, I began to see, and I put my faith in God," so we chant in the Communion Antiphon.  The corresponding psalm is Psalm 27:  "The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the stronghold of my life; whom should I dread.  There is one thing I ask of the Lord, on this do I seek, to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord, to inquire at his Temple."

In his healing of the man born blind, Jesus fulfills the man's deepest longings.  Ironically, because the man professed his faith in Jesus, the Pharisees expel him from the synagogue, but the man finds the true Temple, Christ, and with his physical eyes and with the eyes of his soul, he is able to "gaze on the beauty of the Lord" and "inquire at his Temple."

Sadly, what did most parishes sing this weekend?  If your parish is anything like mine, you probably heard "Amazing Grace".  Music directors justify their selection of this Calvinist song on the basis of one line, "I once was blind, but now I see" as the reason why they believe this song fits the bill.  Sadly, they ignore the fact that the Protestant hymn extols the notion that grace is received the hour one "first believes", something that goes squarely against Catholic doctrine.  Just because one line makes that one reference, that does not make the song suitable for use.  Just because OCP recommends it as the song du joir, does not mean that it should be used.  As Pope Paul VI observed, "not everything is fit to cross the threshold" of liturgical use.

Probably the worst argument that I heard against using the Propers (and even a simple chant such as the Attende Domine) was that "the music would work better if we had a grand building with flying buttresses, not in a modern building like ours."  What does architecture have to do with anything?  The early Church was chanting in the catacombs.  Chant reverberates through Bernini's arms in St. Peter's Square during outdoor Papal Masses. Even the most modern of Church buildings is still conducive to chant.

The other nonsensical argument that was thrown at me was that "chant is not part of our parish culture."  this does not make any sense.  Our culture is the Universal Church.  We conform ourselves to the Church.  We conform our culture to the Church's, not the other way around.

The way the music was, one could hardly tell if we were in the Lenten season.  The only thing Lenten were  that the Gloria and the Alleluia were omitted and that the celebrant wore violet (would have loved rose but that is another story). Sadly, if this keeps up, the youth choir will never experience what it is to fully enter into the mystery of the Lenten season.  They will not understand that during Lent, we take on a more sober approach, reminding ourselves that this is a penitential season.  I weep not only for myself, but for a generation that will not understand the importance of the Church's liturgical seasons.

It is not enough to know how to read music (whether it's Gregorian or modern notation).  It is just as important, perhaps, if not, more important, to understand the Church's liturgical theology and teaching.  Bad music in the Mass leads to bad liturgy and this can result in bad theology, more often than not.

The viewpoints expressed to me I find to be examples of liturgical blindness.  It's not necessarily that person's fault, nor do I blame the music director.  The problem is that we spend more time slavishly following what a publishing house suggests instead of picking up the Church's liturgical books and examining what she has already given us to use.  We become blind to the beauty of the Church's liturgical seasons and we fail to see and experience the rich treasures that the Church offers us.

At some point, maybe the music directors and choirs need to go the liturgical Siloam and be cleansed.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Heaven and Earth Unite

Today, the Church celebrates the magnificent Solemnity of the Annunciation.  On this day, she celebrates with great joy the moment that set the wheels of our salvation in motion, the Incarnation of Christ.

The Introit for today's liturgy comes from that which we use for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the beautiful Rorate Caeli.  The Annunciation falls during Spring time, when the life-giving rains fall on the earth, watering newly planted seeds that will later bloom into flowers and other plants.  In this case, the Holy Spirit is the rain that falls upon the Earth, the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  The seed of the Woman that God promised is no less than His only Begotten Son, Jesus.

In the Mystery of the Incarnation, God shows us how much He values the humanity that He created.  He values it so much that He wants to be a part of us.  He wants to unite Himself to us in a bond that can never be broken.  This is truly remarkable.  Ancient Greek mythology speaks of Zeus taken on various forms to seduce mortal women (a shower of gold, a bull or some other creature).  The offspring resulting from these unions, of which Herakles is the most famous, were demigods. There was no love there, only discord.

The Annunciation is a concrete reality.  It is the most radical, visible expression of the love of God for mankind.  It is radical because He chose to come down and become one of us.  But, unlike the mythological Zeus, God does not seduce nor force Himself upon a woman.  Through the Archangel Gabriel, He asks Mary to be a part of His divine plan.  He waits for her to give Him the answer, born of her own free will.  Just as Eve sinned of her own free will, Mary agrees, of her own free will, giving her Fiat, her Yes, to becoming the Mother of God.

In the Annunciation, Heaven and Earth unite, finding their meeting place in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Mary becomes the true Ark of the Covenant, for, at the moment of her Fiat, she conceives of the Holy Spirit.  In the Church's liturgical year, we genuflect two times, today and Christmas, at the words, "and was incarnate", recognizing the magnitude of the events of Christ's conception and his birth.

In his blog, Bishop Christopher Coyne notes that the Church Fathers linked the Annunciation with the Crucifixion.  Jesus is hidden in the womb of his mother for nine months.  When He is born, new life emerges.  Some 33 years later, after His Crucifixion, Jesus is placed in the dark womb of the tomb, hidden from the world.  Three days later, He emerges fully alive, resurrected from the dead, and new life bursts forth. "Here I am Lord; I come to do your will," King David  writes in the psalms, predicting Jesus' mission, carrying out the will of the Father.  "Sacrifices and oblations you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me," David writes.  That Body of Christ, serves as the true sacrifice and oblation, consecrating man through this salviffic act.

It all begins with the Annunciation.  It is the moment when the skies let the Just One come forth like the dew, descending from the clouds like the rain.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Worship at the Well

This weekend's Gospel reading presents us with St. John's account of the encounter of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.  Three years ago, I wrote about perhaps the most forgotten passage in the whole account, the matter of worship.

I spoke to a friend of mine who is a priest about this topic.  He explained to me that fidelity to God and fidelity to one's spouse are linked.  After God rescued Ancient Israel from Egyptian slavery, the Chosen People rebelled against Him, worshipping a golden calf and engaging in all sorts of depravity.  Time and time again, Ancient Israel turned her back on God, worshipping false gods and engaging in immoral acts.  God had commanded Ancient Israel to remain pure, meaning intermarriage between the descendants of Jacob and pagans was not allowed because when these occur, the non-Israelite spouse would wind up bringing pagan influences and thus cause infidelity.  Such was the case with the Samaritans.  When the Assyrians conquered the northern part of Israel, they swallowed up 10 of the tribes of Jacob.  Then, they brought in their own peoples to the lands and intermarriage with the remaining Israelites and the pagans occurred.  The offspring, the Samaritans, recognized the Lord, the God of their fathers; however, pagan influences had crept into their worship of the One True God.

Now, when Jesus asks the Samaritan woman about her husband, she tells him that she has had five.  This is a metaphor of the five nations that intermingled with the remaining Israelites after the Assyrians had taken over the territory. In fact, the Samaritan woman embodies all of us, because in her person, both Ancient Israel and the Gentiles are united.

So, what does this have to do with worship?  After Jesus identifies the issue of her living arrangements (the sixth man is not her husband), the woman asks him about the proper place for worship.  This is not a strange question.  When the Jews (descendants of Judah) returned to Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile, the Samaritans offered to help them rebuild the Temple.  The Jews declined the offer. Having been rebuffed, the Samaritans decided to worship the Lord on a mountain in their territory.  That is why the Samaritan woman asked Jesus where worship should take place.  Jesus tells her that the Jews worship what they understand because, despite all of the issues they have had, they retained the cultic sacrificial practices handed down from God (through Moses).  The Samaritans intermingled their worship of God with pagan practices.  Thus, their infidelity in not keeping the marital practices dictated by God led to their corrupting worship of Him.

In this day and age, the question of worship remains a key issue.  We do not worship God as we wish; we worship Him as we ought through the means given to us by the Church.  When we inject things into the Mass that simply do not belong there, we run the risk of corrupting the liturgy in much the same way that the Samaritans who had done so with their form of worshipping the Lord. 

One prime example is the music that is used for the Mass.  This weekend, I was at my parish.  If one were to peruse the musical selections (Blest be the Lord, I am the Bread of Life -Talbot), one would think that we were in Ordinary Time.  Not a song had anything to do with the Lenten season.  It was pretty much the usual fare from OCP's Spirit and Song.  While the choir and the music director mean well, it is sad that they do not seem to have a concept of the Church's liturgical seasons and the idea of sacred music.

The First Option of the Introit for the Third Sunday of Lent speaks to the plight of both the Samaritan woman and us.  The fact that she draws water during the hottest part of the day means that she is not accepted amongst the women because of her living situation.  She is ostracized.  When we sin, we are spiritually destitute.  Yet, there is hope.  Just as Jesus begins to transform the Samaritan woman, inspiring her to give of herself to both Him and her village (she begins to evangelize the very people who thought nothing of her), He looks upon us with that same love and mercy.   Somehow, "Flow, River Flow" does not quite capture that deep reality.

The account of Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well has a myriad of rich meanings; however, it is the matter of the idea of proper worship that perhaps stands at the very heart of that encounter.  Worship prepares the heart for that deep encounter with God; however, if we only come to this on our terms, then, we have completely missed the point.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Beauty of the Transfiguration

This past Sunday, the Church presented us with the account of the Transfiguration, wherein we read of Jesus' giving the apostles Sts. Peter, James and John, a glimpse into his divinity while preparing them for the Passion and Death He was to endure in Jerusalem.

While both options of the Introit speak of the significance of the feast, the second option (shown above) reminds us of the beauty of the Transfiguration.  It speaks of seeking the countenance of the Lord, beseeching Him not to turn His face from the seeker.

This is a beautiful imagery.  Ancient Israel knew that God had no body, so to speak, but, she believed that her Lord had a face.  Moses, after all, spoke to the Lord face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.  In the psalms, David exhorts us to seek the face of God and he beseeches the Lord not to hide His face from him.

In the Mystery of the Incarnation, Ancient Israel receives the opportunity for which she has longed since time immemorial: she finally gets to gaze upon the face of God in the person of Christ Jesus.  He is the fairest of the sons of men.  He is the pinnacle of beauty itself.

The music that the Church gives us certainly fits the mystery of the Transfiguration.  St. Peter gives voice to the near ecstasy that he and his fellow apostles are experiencing when they see Christ taking on a dazzling appearance as He gives them a glimpse of His divinity.  The Introit shown above expresses the awe and wonderment of this most august display, drawing us into the mystery with Sts. Peter, James and John.

The Communion antiphon, with its corresponding psalm, further elaborates on this theme:

"Tell no one about the vision you have seen until the Son of Man has risen from the dead" reminds us of the admonition that Christ gave his apostles.  Psalm 45, the corresponding verse to the antiphon, sings the praises of the beauty of the Lord, further echoing the joy that St. Peter experienced.  "My heart overflows with noble words.  To the king I address the song I have made."  These words offer praise to the beauty of the divine majesty of God.

The Prayer over the People that the celebrant recites at the end of the Mass brings this point home:

Bless your faithful, we pray, O Lord,
with a blessing that endures for ever,
and keep them faithful
to the Gospel of your Only Begotten Son,
so that they may always desire and at last attain
that glory whose beauty he showed in his own Body,
to the amazement of his Apostles.

Sadly, though, the songs normally used by parishes for this particular occasion (and others throughout the Church's liturgical year) seem to demonstrate a disconnect between the liturgy and the music.  Not a few parishes, for example, used "Beyond the Days" a contemporary Lenten song, as the entrance hymn and then "Hosea" as the offertory, followed by a modern setting of the "The Lord is My Light" and then "I am the Light of the World."  None of these songs capture the sobriety and the solemnity of the Lenten season, let alone the nature of the day's liturgy.

The Church gives us the Propers, the liturgical music for the Mass.  The Propers are not some randomly chosen set of pieces that sound okay.  These are sacred chants that go hand in hand with the prayers of the Roman Missal.  This is the Church's default liturgical music.  The four-hymn sandwich that many parishes commonly use actually falls into the fourth category of music that the General Instruction of the Roman Missal allows.  It is optional, but, it is not the default.  Unfortunately, publishing companies eager to promote their own composers and compositions neglect to include the propers.  Unless parish music directors know that such music exists, they are more than likely going to slavishly follow the suggestions put forth in OCP's Today's Liturgy or whatever GIA has suggested in its musical program.

Nonetheless, for those parishes that opt to go with the Propers, the tone is quite different.  As soon as the bell rings and the chanting to accompany the entrance procession begins, one realizes that something totally Other is happening.  The chant sets a sacred tone to the Mass.  The faithful can follow along the words, praying with the one who is chanting the Introit and its accompanying psalm, and begin to draw themselves into the beauty of the sacred mysteries that are about to unfold before them.

This is what one means when the phrase "singing the Mass" is used.  This is the real meaning of "sung prayer."  The Propers allow us to experience a glimpse of the beauty called for in the last prayer of the Mass for the Second Sunday of Lent, not only for that day, but for every liturgy we pray.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Seeing RED

A couple of blog posts ago, I wrote about one Deacon Sandy Sites wherein he talks rather pridefully about the kind of liturgy his parish, Good Shepherd Catholic Church, has.  The liturgy he extols is far from what is called for in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and all of the other documents that the Church has given us over the course of several centuries.

In the spirit of fraternal charity, I wrote to Deacon Sandy to express my concern about the plethora of liturgical abuses that he seems to promote in his video.  I received a very tacit response thanking me for my comments.  That is all well and good; however, nothing has changed.  In fact, things have gotten worse.

In the homily that he preached for the Eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Deacon Sandy uses the video screen to ridicule Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, taking a cheap shot at the retired pontiff to make a rather sorry point.  Deacon Sandy resorts to ridicule, perpetuating the serious misunderstanding of why Pope Benedict wore the red shoes.

He accuses Benedict of being superficial; however, the one who rightly deserves that accusation is Deacon Sandy himself.  If he does not understand basic theology, how can he comprehend the rich symbolism behind what a Pope wears and does?

Red is the color of martyrdom.  It is also the color of suffering.  It the color of one who is carrying the weight of the Church on his shoulders.  Perhaps Deacon Sandy might want to read this passage from Isaiah, one that is used during the Stations of the Cross when referring to the Second Fall of Christ:

2 Why is thy apparel red,
    and thy garments like his that treads in the wine press?
3 “I have trodden the wine press alone,
    and from the peoples no one was with me;
I trod them in my anger
    and trampled them in my wrath;
their lifeblood is sprinkled upon my garments,
    and I have stained all my raiment.

Blood is the color of the Passion.  Ultimately, the Pope, as the Vicar of Christ, trods the wine press alone.  Those red shoes symbolize the Holy Father's willingness to give his own lifeblood for the sake of the Church, just as St. Peter did before him, just as Christ did.

It would also do well for Deacon Sandy to ponder and pray over the words that the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in his meditations for the 2005 Stations of the Cross:

What can the third fall of Jesus under the Cross say to us? We have considered the fall of man in general, and the falling of many Christians away from Christ and into a godless secularism. Should we not also think of how much Christ suffers in his own Church? How often is the holy sacrament of his Presence abused, how often must he enter empty and evil hearts! How often do we celebrate only ourselves, without even realizing that he is there! How often is his Word twisted and misused! What little faith is present behind so many theories, so many empty words! How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to him! How much pride, how much self-complacency! What little respect we pay to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, where he waits for us, ready to raise us up whenever we fall! All this is present in his Passion. His betrayal by his disciples, their unworthy reception of his Body and Blood, is certainly the greatest suffering endured by the Redeemer; it pierces his heart. We can only call to him from the depths of our hearts: Kyrie eleison Lord, save us (cf. Mt 8: 25). 
Lord, your Church often seems like a boat about to sink, a boat taking in water on every side. In your field we see more weeds than wheat. The soiled garments and face of your Church throw us into confusion. Yet it is we ourselves who have soiled them! It is we who betray you time and time again, after all our lofty words and grand gestures. Have mercy on your Church; within her too, Adam continues to fall. When we fall, we drag you down to earth, and Satan laughs, for he hopes that you will not be able to rise from that fall; he hopes that being dragged down in the fall of your Church, you will remain prostrate and overpowered. But you will rise again. You stood up, you arose and you can also raise us up. Save and sanctify your Church. Save and sanctify us all. 

The meditation seems to me to describe the state of things at Good Shepherd and at other places that do not respect the sacred nature of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  The parish seems to celebrate itself without even realizing Christ is there.  Deacon Sandy seems to think that poking fun at Benedict will garner him some laughs, as though he were practicing to stand in for Jimmy Fallon or David Letterman.  It, unfortunately, shows his true colors, and they are not hues of red.

Deacon Sandy pulled down his video, but, others have copied it in the hopes that he will see the error of his ways.  He lamented to our friends at the Creative Minority that he was faced with ridicule.  Might I remind Deacon Sandy that he chose to air his laundry on a VERY PUBLIC forum, YouTube.  He is the one who is bringing attention to himself and to the very sad state of affairs in his parish.

May the Lord have mercy on him and on those who joined in on the jeering.  Deacon Sandy talks about "not worrying about clothing", but, he neglects the supreme example that Jesus showed us, as Benedict notes in his reflection on the 10th Station:

Jesus is stripped of his garments. Clothing gives a man his social position; it gives him his place in society, it makes him someone. His public stripping means that Jesus is no longer anything at all, he is simply an outcast, despised by all alike. The moment of the stripping reminds us of the expulsion from Paradise: God's splendor has fallen away from man, who now stands naked and exposed, unclad and ashamed. And so Jesus once more takes on the condition of fallen man. Stripped of his garments, he reminds us that we have all lost the "first garment" that is God's splendor. At the foot of the Cross, the soldiers draw lots to divide his paltry possessions, his clothes. The Evangelists describe the scene with words drawn from Psalm 22:19; by doing so they tell us the same thing that Jesus would tell his disciples on the road to Emmaus: that everything takes place "according to the Scriptures". Nothing is mere coincidence; everything that happens is contained in the Word of God and sustained by his divine plan. The Lord passes through all the stages and steps of man's fall from grace, yet each of these steps, for all its bitterness, becomes a step towards our redemption: this is how he carries home the lost sheep. Let us not forget that John says that lots were drawn for Jesus' tunic, "woven without seam from top to bottom" (Jn 19:23). We may consider this as a reference to the High Priest's robe, which was "woven from a single thread", without stitching (Fl. Josephus, a III, 161). For he, the Crucified One, is the true High Priest. 

Oh, and about that linen cassock that Deacon Sandy ridicules Benedict for wearing?  It is the proper attire for a high priest.  I believe that Deacon Sandy may have missed that crucial detail, especially since the man he was berating was the High Priest and Chief Shepherd of the Church on Earth.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Meaning of Sacrifice

Today, the Church embarks on her 40-day Lenten journey.  The liturgy for Ash Wednesday challenges us to rend our hearts to God, imploring His mercy.  The ashes imposed on our foreheads (or sprinkled on our heads) remind us that we were all formed from the dust of the earth and our mortal bodies will eventually return to that state.

One of my Facebook friends wondered why the Church encourages "giving stuff up" for Lent.  My friend is not the only one who has raised that question.  Not a few Protestants raise that issue year after year. "Why do you give up meat on Fridays?"

I spoke to one of my dearest friends who is a prelate.  In the homily that he preached at this evening's Mass, he shed some light and offered insight into this ancient tradition of the Church.  "Lent is not about the mind," he explained.  "It is about the heart and about the will."  Lent teaches us to remove the focus on ourselves and to redirect it towards God and others.  When we "give up something" for Lent, we are saying to our "self" that "you are not the most important person in my life."  Lent helps us to not train our vision on ourselves.  It teaches us to "seek what is above", as St. Paul exhorted the nascent Church.

In last Sunday's Gospel, Jesus told us to "seek first the kingdom of God".  He did not say "seek only" the kingdom of God; he said to seek it first.  The sacrificial disciplines of Lent help us to do that.  Giving up small things like candy, certain foods and beverages, or activities like unnecessary shopping, watching a favorite TV show and the like help us to not make ourselves and our desires the masters of our lives.  Spending additional time in prayer, engaging in penance and taking on additional acts of charity re-orient us towards God and neighbor.  When we say "no" to ourselves, we wind up saying "yes" to God and to others.  In a sense, it is a test to see who does come first.  It is a test to see if we can, through God's help, master our passions and our desires.

The Church observes 40 days because Jesus, Himself, spent 40 days in the desert.  He recapitulated in His person the 40 years that Ancient Israel spent in the desert as she was being purified.   We fast and pray because He fasted and prayed. The solemn fast of Lent prepares us for the great celebration of our redemption, the Sacred Triduum, when Christ our Paschal Lamb was immolated and then rose triumphantly.  But, there is also a long-term effect to our annual Lenten regimen:  it also helps to prepare us for the life to come.  It helps to fit us for Heaven.   If we remain trained on ourselves only, then we cannot be open and receptive to God and to our neighbor.  If we make ourselves the center of our lives, then we wind up following the example of Satan, who is selfishness to the extreme. If we cannot say no to simple things like that sweet chocolate bar or that brand new Coach purse, if we cannot spend a few minutes extra in prayer to God or if we cannot spare a few moments to comfort a neighbor in need, then what kind of a response will we give to the Lord when He calls us?

Now, I admit.  I have not quite gotten Lent down pat.  Every year I set off on my Lenten journey with my list of things I have planned to offer up and two weeks down the road, I stumble and fall.  I think that I speak for not a few of us who have experienced this.  However, Jesus fell three times on the road to Calvary.  He is with me when I fall and He is with all of us when we fall.  He "gazes upon us and lifts us up," Pope Benedict writes in his meditations on the Stations of the Cross.

The ashes on my forehead remind me that I am not meant solely for this Earth.  They remind me that I am a sinner in need of God's mercy. The chants of Ash Wednesday that the Church gives us remind us that "You are merciful to all, O Lord, and despise nothing that you have made.  You overlook people's sins, to bring them to repentance and you spare them, for you are the Lord our God."  The Attende Domine, the Church's ancient Lenten chant, implores God's mercy.  "Have mercy on us O Lord, graciously hear us, guilty of sinning before you."

Our lives are a continual call to conversion.  If we only focus on the "gospel of prosperity" that only addresses the here and now, then we have completely missed the point of what it is be a pilgrim on this Earth.  We were not merely made for earthly greatness; we were made to live with God in heaven.  Lent reminds us of who we are and helps us find our proper orientation, redirecting us to the God who made us and who, in His great mercy, sent His only-begotten Son to save us.