by Fr. David May.
If you took a survey of people in Madonna House, Combermere, you would probably find very few who would pick February as their favorite month. Usually by the time it has begun, we have already had two months of snow. By its end, we’ve had three.
By February, the glow of Christmas has long worn off. Liturgically speaking, Ordinary Time, always a bit of a letdown after Epiphany with its promises of eternal splendor, is grinding its slow way towards Ash Wednesday.
February is often a rather windy month around here, so it feels colder, though there is the consolation of increasing daylight. Diehards continue to get in some cross-country skiing, though often by this time, there are layers of treacherous ice mixed in with the snow.
This is a quiet time of year, the time when the staff are given one afternoon a week to study a favorite topic, often in groups together, and visitors are offered a course on the catechism or some other topic of interest.
On the horizon is the tapping of the maple trees by Fr. Louis and other enthusiasts, but it’s too early to be thinking of that quite yet. No sap is running, and the signs of spring are pretty well non-existent.
In the midst of this wintry, desert-like scene, Ash Wednesday will suddenly burst upon us. According to the mysterious calculations of the vernal equinox, full moon, and such, it happens either in February or March, but whenever it happens, on this day, Holy Mother Church officially declares the beginning of spring.
Figuratively speaking, trumpets are sounded bidding us to repent, to die to self, and to rise again with Jesus Christ. Winter is regarded as finished, and the whole gravity of life now pulls us inexorably towards Easter’s triumph.
Ashes are duly distributed on foot-draggers and fervent disciples alike. Those in the first flush of enthusiasm and grizzled veterans of years of spiritual combat are all bluntly classified with the same pressing need: "Wash! Make yourselves clean!"
We are reminded that ours is a religion that is dependent on ongoing miracles for its continuance. And the major kind of miracle needed, resurrection from the dead, applies to one and all.
For who can forgive in any depth or continuity without being raised from the death that is resentment and anger? Who can continue to love when love’s rewards are sparse and seldom seen, without being raised from the tomb of weariness and discouragement?
And who can endure the sufferings of illness, rejection, and mental anguish—to name only a few—without the voice of Christ calling to each one time and time again, "Lazarus, come forth!"
Lent is the season that reminds Christians how much we need miracles to keep going. Easter is the truth that reminds us that said miracles are the norm, not the exception.
Yes, the grace of a new heart and a new spirit is the greatest of miracles, and God gives it to all who seek it with faith. Such is the promise and the point of Lent.
Are you accustomed to living in the expectation of such miracles of grace? Catherine Doherty certainly tried to inculcate us with that hope. She had signs printed up—Expect a Miracle—in various places.
As the foundress of an apostolate that rose twice from the ashes, she knew what she was talking about. The fact that she would accept into Madonna House people who were rather timid and naturally "weak" to earthly eyes, was testimony to her seeing more deeply into God’s mysterious and miraculous ways than most people do.
She herself knew the same grace in her own life, so she was able to recognize its possibility in the lives of others.
The ashes of this first Wednesday of Lent are the sign of those who hope in such miracles. All that "dust and ashes" (that is, you and me) can do is place ourselves in the hands of our Father, who alone sees the secret nature of things.
That is what our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are really all about—ways of resting in the arms of our Father rather than generating existence by our own efforts.
Prayer takes effort, fasting depletes the energies, and almsgiving, in the broad of sense of charity lived in the nitty-gritty, wears you down.
Yet the experience is that these three marks of Lenten practice do not leave us worn out, listless, and tired. Rather they lead us to rest on the breast of God our Father, as Jesus did on the Cross when he prayed, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit."
This "resting in God" is the goal of all our efforts and even of the sufferings God may ask us to endure, sufferings which might be far beyond anything we imagined possible.
At some moment, during Lent or Holy Week or maybe at Easter—it is utterly mysterious as to how or when—we cross a threshold, a door into the kingdom. Not that our efforts take us there, but our Father receives us there, and in that welcome, we are "raised from the dead" once again.
Life within us is renewed. We can praise with a jubilant spirit. We can love with the pierced heart of Christ. Spring returns to the earth in all its green, life-giving finery.
Maybe February isn’t such a bad month after all.
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