Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Ash Wednesday

[the following is my prepared text for today's homily]

Pope John Paul II frequently warned our culture in the West not to cooperate with the Culture of Death, and with reason. I forget how many murders the average teenager sees in a week on television, but suffice it to say that we do not follow the precept of the prophet Isaiah that would have us turn our eyes lest we look on evil. Television shows extolling torture as a good and movies reveling in gore are at the top of the charts.

And yet, for all of that, we are squeamish when it comes to dealing with death in real life, as it were. The Culture of Death does not even like the word ‘abortion’, an ugly word that clearly connotes the aborting of life. Hazy existential terms like ‘choice’ and pseudo-scientific terms like “pregnancy termination” are preferred. Funeral directors put fake grass over graves lest we be tempted to contemplate that our own bodies will someday end up in just such a hole in the ground, and then they shoe us away from the grave, so we don’t see the body of a loved one descend into the dust from which it was taken.

It would seem odd that the Church, promoting the Culture of Life, would have us today meditate on death. And yet this seems to bring us full circle. If the Culture of Death is wrapped up in a denial of the realities of bloodshed and decay, preferring instead to sample them in titillating vicarious ways, we Christians are the realists, judging by faith that truth, even hard truth, will set us free. And so we monks today put into action the teaching of St. Benedict to ‘keep death daily before our eyes’. Why do we do this? Are we aiming to be morbid kill-joys?

Far from it: we are in fact preparing ourselves for the holiest of days, the day upon which Christ triumphed over death by acknowledging the reality of death by dying Himself. Afterward, He rose again, and returned to offer us reconciliation by the life of the Holy Spirit. Over the course of the year, our appreciation for this stunning affirmation of the greatness of life and the power of God tends to wane under the burden of many pressures and distractions. Today, we recommit ourselves to reality in order to prepare for the celebration of that Day of Days once more. We do this not by perfecting ourselves. Our penances are not a self-improvement program. Rather, we do this by fearlessly facing the truth of our need for God’s grace and pardon. We do this by recognizing that we don’t have eternity to choose life and choose God, that merely going about business as usual leaves us at the mercy of death and decay.

Let us then make time this Lent to meditate on our sins, on the ways in which we have cooperated with the Culture of Death, and acknowledge this, each of us personally, so that we can turn to the God of Life for healing. And let us always do so with an eye on the prize: the celebration of Life’s triumph on the Cross at Easter.

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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