Lent - Conversion Must be Visible

Today at the campus-wide Ash Wednesday Mass at Marian, Fr. Joe gave an enthusiastic homily exhorting everyone to remember their Christian vocation of being "ambassadors for Christ" (from the second reading, II Corinthians 5:20-6:2).  He noted that in our day and age we tend to forget this basic call, this fundamental part of being Christian, and Lent is a chance to "be reconciled to God" (again from St. Paul) "rend[ing] our hearts" (from the first reading, Joel 2:12-18).  

I learned that there are two correct phrases that can be said when you receive the ashes: "remember man you are dust and to dust you shall return" (the one I have always heard) or "turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel".  Either way, of course, we must remember the importance of repentance and conversion, that's what penance is all about (see my previous post), but as Fr. Joe reminded us today, that interior conversion, that reorienting ourselves towards God, must reverberate through our entire life and carry us out to carry on the mission of Our Lord in the world.  As he explained, prayer, fasting, and alms-giving must go together.  We can't just stop at making ourselves better through fasting and prayer and consider our Lenten mission accomplished.  We must also extrovert, or externalize, this internal following of Christ in the giving of alms.  Fr. Joe really pounded this point home through a story, which I will take the space to tell (because it's a great story):

A man in a city on the East Coast was exiting the metro station, about to arrive home, when he was accosted by an armed young man who demanded that he hand over his wallet.  The man complied, handing over his wallet, but as the thief hurried off he called after him and offered to give him his coat as well, since it was bitterly cold and the the thief didn't have one.  The young man was shocked at this generosity and returned to the older man, and they eventually got into a conversation.  The older man asked his assailant why he robbed him and the young man replied that he had no money and needed something to eat.  At this the older man replied that if the younger man had just asked for a meal, he would have happily provided it.  As the story continued, the older gentleman did just that, taking this guy who robbed him out to eat, and in the end, the would-be-robber returned both coat and wallet and left the restaurant determined to make something out of his life, completely changed from the experience of generosity.
Fr. Joe told the story much better than I have related it here, but I think it still beautifully shows how lent is a time of both internalizing and externalizing the life of Christ, it's about conversion both inside and outside of ourselves.  Fasting, as I explained in that previous post, is about suffering, but it is also about opening ourselves up to Christ.  Alms-giving is about aiding the poor, but it is also about doing all the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.  Prayer is about speaking to God, but it is also about listening, and it is about asking for God's help and mercy for ourselves, but it is also about interceding for others.  In short, Lent is a time to learn to be unselfish - prayer, fasting, alms-giving, they must all lead to our internal growth towards Christ and our external living of that life of Christ.  

The reading from mid-afternoon prayer today, which I ran across shortly after starting this post, tells us to "Atone for your sins by good deeds, and for you misdeeds by kindness to the poor; then your prosperity will be long." [Daniel 4:24]  I happily noted that it succinctly recounted what I was trying to get at in this post, that our atonement (conversion) must entail more than sacrifice, or even sacrifice offered with the correct internal orientation towards Christ, it must lead to us living our lives in such a way that it is obvious to all that we follow Christ.  Today this is easy, everybody can see the smudge of ash that is more-or-less cross-shaped on our foreheads, but tomorrow, and every other day, we must continue to keep this symbol in mind.  Those ashes, like the other penances we undertake during this Lent, must remind us that we are dust and to dust we shall return, and because of this we must constantly strive to redirect our lives towards Christ, and His cross - internally and externally.  Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel!