It was Mardi Gras night, 1995, and I found myself sipping bourbon at 40,000 feet over the Atlantic, en route to Rome where I’d been asked to address an international symposium on the recent Cairo World Conference on Population and Development; there, you may recall, adroit Holy See diplomacy prevented the Clinton Administration from getting abortion-on-demand declared a fundamental human right, equivalent to religious freedom or free speech. On Ash Wednesday morning, I set off in search of an English-language Mass and soon found myself at Santa Susanna, Rome’s American “parish” near the Piazza della Repubblica. The noon Mass was packed with local Anglophones, with whom I queued up after the homily to receive ashes. What followed was one of the shocks of my life.
“Be reconciled to yourself this Lent,” the priest intoned, imposing the ashes. To which I could only blurt out in response, “What did you say?”
Whatever Father X’s intentions, his admonition was a piece of psychobabble that badly misconceived the spiritual wisdom of the Ash Wednesday liturgy. The kernel of that wisdom is contained in the liturgy’s second reading, from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. There, Paul gives his apostolic mission a remarkable definition: undertaken in this “acceptable time,” it is a mission of reconciliation, and through it the good news is proclaimed that God has reconciled the world to Himself, restoring man’s lost communion with his Creator through the gift of the Son.
The Greek verb used to describe this reconciliation has a particular edge to it: for what is being “reconciled” is not a bank statement and a check book, but a relationship—a relationship of love, broken by betrayal. Through that verb, Paul hammers home to gentile Corinthians a theme dear to the Old Testament Hebrew prophets: The relationship between God and humanity is not like that of a dictator and his subjects, or a master and his slaves; rather, God’s relationship with us is best understood by analogy to love. And the reconciliation that God wishes to achieve in Christ is the kind of reconciliation that follows infidelity in love.
This, and not some psychobabble about self-regard, is the reconciliation to which the journey of Lent calls us. Lent is the “acceptable time” in which we should seize every opportunity to confront our infidelities: not to wallow in guilt, but because recognizing the truth of our fallenness is the first, essential step toward reconciliation with those we have wounded and with God. The great Charlton Heston was once asked the secret of his long, happy marriage to Lydia; the man who had played prophets, kings, and presidents said, in so many words, “It’s not very difficult; you just have to be able to say, ‘I’m sorry, I was wrong.’” The inability to say that—or, more properly, the lack of a Someone to whom that can be said, a Someone with real authority to forgive—has cultural, not only personal, consequences.
In his 2003 apostolic letter, Ecclesia in Europa, the Servant of God John Paul II noted the sense of cultural malaise that permeated 21st century Europe—and then linked it to the basic human need for forgiveness: “One of the roots of the hopelessness that assails many people today is … their inability to see themselves as sinners and to allow themselves to be forgiven, an inability often resulting from the isolation of those who, by living as if God did not exist, have no one from whom they can seek forgiveness” [emphasis added]. And what is true of Europe is also true of America, which is Europe transplanted: if there is no one to whom we can turn for forgiveness, we will turn in on ourselves—and we will find there no satisfying agent of absolution. Self-reconciliation is self-delusion.
Thus one good way to live this “acceptable time” of Lent is to discover anew the graces of the sacrament of reconciliation. Through those graces, we, like Paul’s Corinthians, can become in Christ the “righteousness of God.” Doing that is what keeps hope alive.