In our freshman year of college, one of the priests on the faculty was passing by the room I shared with my classmate. As neither of us won any prizes from Good Housekeeping, Father stepped into the room, looked around quizzically, and remarked: “You know how it says in the Bible, ‘Remember man, you are dust, and to dust you shall return?’ Well, it looks like there’s someone either coming or going under your sink!”
Love—God’s love—makes the difference between mere dust…and human dignity.
We must remember something about the experience—and language—of love that makes it distinctly Christian. Today’s gospel—Jesus’ guidance regarding prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—comes just a few short verses after the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount. Our Lord doesn’t simply describe the perfection of holiness that typifies his followers: poverty of spirit, mercy, cleanness of heart, and the rest. Rather, he embodies holiness at every moment of his life. It follows that, coming face to face with divine love in all its glory, we become painfully aware of our own failure to love. As Fr. Balthasar points out, there are metaphors of love among animals that care for their young, even to the point of death. Among other human beings, too, we observe how passionate love may result in fidelity, sacrifice, and “self-renunciation”: the operative word being may. But people can and often do fall short of love’s demands. This is because the workings of love occur in a fallen world damaged by egoism, selfish interest, and cruelty. How many of us were sure that someone would be our “best friend forever,” only to discover that the individual was weak, or untrustworthy, or just plain shallow? Having occupied both sides of the equation, I appreciate the sting of deception, whether as its recipient or, more shamefully, its perpetrator. The fault, of course, is not in love properly understood, but in the mistaken idea that we can achieve it by our own devices. True love, strictly speaking, lies beyond the human capacity to achieve it, attain it, or in any way earn it. Just as it is only by embracing the paradox of death that we discover eternal life (thank you, St. Francis), it is only by emptying our hearts of all that would substitute for God, that we can receive him. Yet even the desire to empty our hearts is the result of “actual” grace by which God draws us deeper into his friendship. What’s more, it is absurd to think that mortal human beings can promise each other “endless” love without recognizing the possibility—indeed, the necessity—of a love that is not limited by death, a love that does not originate in us.
This is where the holy practices of Lent come into the picture for Christians. Prayer, as St. John Damascene once described it, is the “lifting up of the soul to God.” It does not put one penny in the bank, nor does it fix one leaky faucet, nor does it make one peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Instead, it is the target at which all these other actions aim: to savor God, even now, as the fulfillment of our hearts’ desire. Fasting is the concrete discipline that trains the body to yearn for God with the same sense of urgency with which the body hungers and thirsts for refreshment. Almsgiving is rooted in the conviction that we behold the face of Christ in our neighbor, and so what we give is not so much charity as it is justice.
A parishioner asked if we will distribute Ashes this year on Ash Wednesday. Indeed we will. It may be a small sign, but an important one. Without the Lord, we are dust and ash. But oh, what dust we are: spiritual beings whom God re-creates after the pattern of Christ’s glorified humanity.