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Time to Be Peculiar

Ash Wednesday’s liturgy is a Lenten primer

By Daria Sockey

The liturgy of Ash Wednesday — both the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours — gives us plenty to think about. The readings and prayers form a course in what Lent is all about and what we should remember as we progress through these 40 days of penance. Here are just a few samples.

Psalm 51 appears both in the Mass and in morning prayer. We are supposed to begin Lent by repenting of our sins. This Psalm is about the most beautiful act of contrition there is, expressing a humble admission of guilt and complete faith in God’s mercy.

Daria Sockey

We’ve heard it before:

Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness, in your compassion blot out my offense.
O wash me more and more from my guilt, and cleanse me from my sin...
Against you, you alone have I sinned; what is evil in your sight I have done.
O purify me, then I shall be clean; O wash me, I shall be whiter than snow.
A pure heart create for me, O Lord, put a steadfast spirit within me.

The reading from Morning Prayer includes this line from Deuteronomy Chapter 7: You are a people sacred to the Lord your God; he has chosen you from all the nations on the face of the earth to be a people peculiarly his own.

Think about the word “peculiar.” It has two meanings, illustrated by the following sentences:

There’s a species of bass peculiar to the Great Lakes.
Those Catholics are a little peculiar, don’t you think?

In the reading, God is telling us that we are peculiar in the first sense: belonging uniquely to him. Set apart. But in responding to God’s call to be his children, we will sooner or later find ourselves appearing “peculiar” in the second sense. When co-workers spot ashes on your forehead, or notice those meatless lunches on Friday, they might think you pretty peculiar. The bishops’ recent public stand on conscience and freedom of religion in the context of the HHS mandate has brought what is considered a very “peculiar” teaching on contraception to the attention of non-Catholics. If you’re truly Catholic, sooner or later you will stand out among peers as somehow different. And that’s a good thing.

Lent is a great time to embrace our “peculiarity” in both senses of the word. We should be so glad to belong to the God who saves us, and we should embrace the radical lifestyle he calls us to. Nor should we care in the least what others think about us for following Christ. On the contrary, our joy over belonging to him should be apparent. Even those who think us peculiar should also be wondering what we have (that they don’t) that makes us so happy.

Although a commitment to our faith will at times make us stand out among our secular contemporaries, this is not the same as showing off our spiritual prowess. The Gospel for Ash Wednesday makes this perfectly clear. As Jesus said:

When you fast, do not put on a gloomy face, like the hypocrites...when you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you...to win the praise of others...do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be in secret.

In other words, don't let your family know how it's killing you to skip coffee, give up smoking, or refrain from checking your email every hour. Smile a lot during Lent. And avoid dropping little references to your good deeds when you are with people who would be impressed. If someone suggests you should try sacrifices A and B, don’t counter proudly with the C,D,E and F that you are already doing.

Finally, pay close attention to this prayer, which is the Collect (opening prayer) at Mass, as well as the conclusion of Morning Prayer and Vespers. For years I’ve read this prayer along with grace before dinner on Ash Wednesday, because it is so inspiring. It’s a masculine prayer, with its imagery of warfare and battle. And how appropriate, since we will be waging war against our inclinations to gluttony, laziness, and selfishness; and doing battle with Satan, who will try to persuade us to be easy, rather than tough on ourselves. When St. Teresa of Avila exhorted her nuns to penance, she would tell them to “Be men!” With this prayer we ask God to give each of us the heart of a warrior:

Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with the weapons of self-restraint. Through our Lord Jesus Christ you son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever.

Let us all say, Amen!