With Ash Wednesday looming in sight one of the brothers was asked what the season meant for him and he said with a laugh “hunger”. His ‘smart answer’ in a sense is right because Lent is about getting in touch with the hunger for God buried in every human heart. This hunger according to St. Thomas Aquinas is the result of us being created for God. Creation is God’s way of inviting us into the sheer ecstasy of being in loving friendship with Him. This will be achieved when we see God as He really is face to face. The Angelic doctor teaches that the true desire in all our willing is really this ‘beatific end’ whether we are aware of it or not. So on Ash Wednesday when the Lord summons us through the Prophet Joel in the first reading to “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (Jl 2:12) we could say in a sense God is calling us to cleanse our hearts from all its disordered desires and vices so that we can, through his mercy, experience that internal hunger for Him as our beatifying end.
But we know all too well that we tend to fill this hunger for God with other things. These other things Aquinas says are typically pleasure, power, wealth, honour, fame and glory. The last three are particularly appropriate for our Ash Wednesday liturgy since Jesus in the Gospel tells us not to undertake prayers, penances and fasts for the sake of gaining people’s good opinions and praise. Instead of seeking applause and honour for our works, which is nothing but ambition, our Lord wants us to be virtuous, that is acting in accord with His will. He wants us to realise that what truly matters is our interior dispositions and not what other people see us doing. He desires us to be hungry for Him and not for people’s praises.
I am reminded of an episode in the life of St. Therese of Lisieux. In her autobiography she recounts an episode from her community life: she felt like rushing to do a certain chore but sacrificed not doing it in order to give another sister the opportunity to be charitable. Neither did she want to draw any attention to herself. Despite her hidden sacrifice she was castigated by a fellow nun for being so lacking in generosity. When Jesus calls us to act in secret for our Father not only do we loose the admiration of others we can even become misunderstood. This is part of carrying our daily Cross by which God’s grace sanctifies us and makes us joyful in our hunger for God.
Lent is about rending from our hearts the many things in which we seek our happiness apart from God. It is about rediscovering the hunger in us for God as our ultimate happiness. This hunger instils in us a sense of wonder and awe because of the reality that lies before us. The Christian singer Laurie Mangano sums up this hungry heart when she sings, “ I can only imagine what my eyes will see when your face is before me, I can only imagine… surrounded by your glory what will my heart feel? Will I dance for you Jesus or in awe of you be still? Will I stand in your presence or to my knees will I fall? Will I be able to speak at all? I can only imagine.”
Reflection on First Reading and Gospel for Ash Wednesday – Year A (JL 2: 12-18) and (Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-18)