There is an Episcopal Church in Bolingbrook that on certain occasions has signs out front. Most are announcing programs but some are more creative. A few months ago they had a sign that read ‘Pray Globally, Serve Locally’. I thought this rather limited, it reduced prayer to concern about this part of our journey. It seemed to preclude any dialog with the creator outside of earthly needs. It flattened faith to the horizontal, imminent aspect. It said ‘We are the body of Christ’ And though it spoke of service, which is a great thing; it seemed limited as well, at least in connection with the first part of the sign. I thought, ‘Pray divinely, serve divinely’ was a better use of our gifts. Then as fast as it entered my mind it left, until yesterday.
Yesterday they put a sign out front announcing their Ash Wednesday Services, which read: ‘Ashes to Go’. It seemed too light-hearted, too whimsical; it deflected the reader from remembering the powerful, eternal reason for the Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent which starts with it. To me it just said, come in and get ashes then go about your business as usual.
Now, I am pointing this out not to put this Episcopal Church in the crosshairs, but to point out a general current flowing through many of the denominations in our country, indeed in the whole world; even within our own church. To varying degrees we have lost the transcendent aspect of our faith. We have become, in some ways, social service organizations with crosses, bells and smells. We do for the sake of doing, we follow what our parents did and taught us. If there is a more profound reason it is usually: because we want to help those who are hurting, which is indeed a great calling, part of the greatest.
But, this current of religiosity falls short of the source that should be our motivation. Today’s Gospel gives us the account of Christ showing his disciples a better calling – fishers of men. The first reading gives us Isaiah’s vision of his dialog with the heavenly hosts and St Paul tells the Corinthians that what he is handing on to them was what he was handed by Christ and his apostles. We see today that faith is, as the Holy Father said ‘a personal encounter’
‘Love our neighbor as ourselves’ is a lofty, honorable ideal, it is a worthy calling for everyone. But this calling is what everyone should do; it even defines what a government should be. If we listen to our elected officials describe why they are in office they will tell us it is to help our fellow citizens, and I think almost all of them believe that. Our calling as follower of Christ is to: ‘…love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind… and love your neighbor as yourself.’ This is what we are called to do; to be. Jesus tells us that ‘The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.’ Not one but two. Through the love of the first we can love the latter. Through knowing the first we can come to know the latter.
In this New Evangelization we need to bring into clear focus this all important relationship with God, this foundational source of our life if we are to truly help each other; for it is in our relationship with our creator that we complete our creation; we can’t do it on our own. We need to regain that sense of the divine, the divine that comes to us, the divine that devotes himself to us, if are ever to truly devote ourselves to our neighbors. Anything short of this intimate relationship with God leaves us vulnerable to withering; withering of our energy and our love; and that, in turn, leads to despair of those we trying to help and have left hanging on dashed hopes.
It seems to me, that this Lent I need to refocus on my relationship with the Lord, allow His Holy Spirit to pierce my defensive layers and show me my weaknesses in our relationship, to burn away, so to speak, my prideful impurities so that we, the Lord and myself, can become closer. By participating in this purgation at the hands God can I be sure that I love my neighbor as myself. All of this can start with the understanding that ashes are more than something you just pick up.