Lent

Now is an Acceptable Time: A Challenging Ash Wednesday Reflection

by John DeCostanza

Working together, then,
we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.
For he says:

In an acceptable time I heard you,
and on the day of salvation I helped you.

Behold, now is a very acceptable time;
behold, now is the day of salvation.[1]

Now.  This is it.  The acceptable time, the day of salvation, the moment at hand, NOW Paul tells us.  These words from today’s second reading were written for me and they were written for you.  The call for a “clean heart” as the psalmist tells us is never more true than this moment at the beginning of this Lent.  As I write, NOW would be an acceptable time for many of us to become aware of the machinery at work around us and I ask you to consider this as your walk to the cross this Lent.

The machinery I refer to has brought the names and stories of men who lost their lives tragically, needlessly into our minds and hearts in these past few years – Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and countless others.  If there is a name you don’t recognize here, commit to understanding why.  It may just be that you do not live with the reality that ultimately claimed their lives.  Perhaps you, or your son, or your neighbor, or your friend has never been read as a threat before being understood as a person.  You have been privileged.  NOW is an acceptable time to begin to understand why that happens to African-Americans and Latinos at a staggering rate compared their white peers.  NOW is also an acceptable time to ask yourself why your life looks different than theirs.  I know many whites like me have been pained at succession of black lives lost to police violence. One friend envies my pain.  He has nothing left to lament.  He is an African-American male.  We are the same age.  “Oppression feels normal,” he said recently.

Behold, now is a very acceptable time.

Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.[2]

Many hearts have been shred anew by the recent punishing reminders of violence fueled by fear and hatred.  The news of this past week’s murder of three Muslim college students in Chapel Hill, NC should pain all of us.  The beheadings of 21 Coptic Christians should be a reminder that unbridled evil can emerge from the hearts of humans.  It is true that the intersection of race and religion is a complex crossroads, but we cannot move beyond atrocity without moving through it.  Rending hearts in this season means recognizing our common humanity even in the face of such pain.  As King wrote over fifty years ago from a jail cell in Birmingham to a group of white pastors who regarded the movement as too radical and his actions as being outside agitation:

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.[3]

Returning to the Lord means taking steps beyond the slacktivism of a Facebook post.  There are so many creative endeavors to bring restorative justice, God’s justice, to communities.  One of the marks of a good creative venture in restorative justice is that it highlights the true relational fabric of which King writes.  Soul Fire Farm in New York is a farm that “bring[s] diverse communities together on this healing land to share skills on sustainable agriculture, cooking, and natural building, and contribute to the movements for food sovereignty and community self-determination.”  This is multivalent right relationship with the earth, with others, and with self and God.  The farm sponsors various programs that promote solidarity with the marginalized.  This is just one example.  To be woven into a single garment of destiny means regarding ourselves as having a common future in full awareness of the blessed and broken character of our disparate pasts.  In that future, we cannot set ourselves apart as the “the hypocrites do” in today’s Gospel.  Their pious practice turns in on itself and what is meant to be the habits of focusing us outward on solidarity and justice – prayer, almsgiving, and fasting – becomes the stuff of egocentrism.  NOW is an acceptable time to make Lent more about others than it is about us.

A clean heart create for me, O God,

And a steadfast spirit renew within me.[4]

Too often, the Lenten imaginary privileges lament and does not move us toward compassion.  The traditional Lenten praxis of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving can be more bound up in sackcloth and ashes than in the relationships with God, self, and others which we contemplate.  ash wednesdayOn this day especially, the sacramental of ashes on the forehead readily fills pews, but I often wonder if there is as much desire to walk the long journey that comes after.  In a beautiful discussion of compassion’s role in more adequate Roman Catholic engagement in racial justice, Bryan Massingale uses stories of deep relationship between whites and blacks to call those of us in the dominant group to task on how we might imagine ourselves into our privilege.  Drawing on the work of social scientist Joe Feagin and personal narratives from whites in transracial families, Massingale unpacks how deep identification through love and friendship can disrupt socialized norms to foster a new identity.

Such loving and committed relationships give one the visceral outrage, courage, strength, and motivation to break free from the ‘rewards of conformity’ that keep most whites complacent with white privilege.  Transformative love, or compassion, empowers them for authentic solidarity… Without the cultivation of such solidarity – rooted in lament, compassion, and transformative love – truth-telling and affirmative redress result in superficial palliatives that leave the deep roots of injustice undisturbed.[5]

If Lent truly does move us outside of ourselves to constitute a world that is more fully as our God intends it to be, then we cannot sit idly by while our sisters and brothers suffer.  There are too many alternatives.  As King wrote so prophetically, “If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”  Those words cannot be more true and more relevant than they are today.  A clean heart and a steadfast spirit are needed to face the difficult and grinding reality of racial injustice in our society and hatred in our world.  More importantly, they are what is needed to be able to forge meaningful relationships across difference.  Friendship and love are our hope.  This Lent our practice has to go beyond lament for what is broken and reach toward compassion and transformative relationship.  If all my friends look like me, I have to ask myself, “Why?”  If I struggle to build bridges between different ideologies and belief systems, the question remains, “Why?”  If I struggle to value what is unique in “others” in my life and I tend to remake them in my own image and likeness, I should always question “Why?”  Today is the day.  In this first moment of Lent, feel the fierce urgency of now for justice delayed is justice denied.  After all, it’s not justice for me that matters anyway.  What begins in me must come to be realized in us.  Moving through lament we can arrive together at right relationship.

NOW is the day of salvation.  NOW is the time.

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This blog post’s author, John DeCostanza, is a D.Min student at CTU, a member of the Theophilus Editorial Board, and the Director of University Ministry at Dominican University

[1] 2 Corinthians 6:1-2

[2] Joel 2:13a

[3] King, Jr., Martin Luther. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Accessed February 17, 2015. http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.

[4] Psalm 51:12

[5] Massingale, Bryan N. Racial Justice and the Catholic Church. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2010. 120.

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Preparing for Lent

Frater Mike Brennan, O. Praem., offers some helpful resources as we prepare our hearts for Lent. 

Needs some ideas for Lenten practices? Ash Wednesday is upon us this week. Here are some thoughts to get you started!

Thanks for sharing, Mike! What are others’ favorite Lenten practices? Share in the comments!