By Daniel Meloy
DETROIT (CNS) — “Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”
Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron reflected on these words of St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, which are meant not just for a specific people at a specific time but are intended for the faithful here and today.
Ash Wednesday is a time of salvation, even amid a pandemic that has caused much suffering and economic strife, he told the congregation gathered at St. Aloysius Church Feb. 17, the first day of Lent this year.
The Mass drew just about 100 people to the church in downtown Detroit, where many businesses continue to work remotely and with many Catholics electing to watch the liturgy via livestream.
“The Church is making a very bold claim: Even though Paul wrote this centuries ago, it’s about now,” Archbishop Vigneron said during his homily. “’Now is an acceptable time.’ That’s what St. Paul is saying to you and me about Feb. 17, 2021, even in the middle of a pandemic.”
Beyond the smaller congregation, this year’s Ash Wednesday liturgy was different from prior years. Instead of using his thumb, the archbishop and the two priests assisting him sprinkled the ashes on the faithful’s heads, a custom that is traditional in many parts of the world.
Reporters from local television stations and newspapers were present at St. Aloysius to cover the beginning of Lent.
“The media is fascinated about our ritual of ashes,” Archbishop Vigneron said. “But we must understand the meaning of this ritual. It’s about you and me coming forward with our own personal assessment about where we might be separated from Christ. Perhaps it’s as little as gossip, or as great (a sin) as racism. We all have sins in our hearts, but we’re in recovery.”
Lent as a time of personal self-reflection and atonement is part of a greater realization of how the world has been crippled by sin, which only Jesus heals, he said.
“Like most people, we know there is a problem (in the world); you don’t have to be a believer to see that,” Archbishop Vigneron said. “Even sickness and death are bad fruits of original sin. God never meant it to be that way, but our first parents rebelled against God, and we’ve all been part of that. But we believe in Jesus of Nazareth, the risen Christ. He is the remedy for our sins.”
Archbishop Vigneron said the Lenten season is “an opportunity for each of us to walk the path of repentance and recovery together.”
“This is a time to refocus our recovery program,” Archbishop Vigneron said. “Forty days of saving grace. Forty days before the sacred paschal Triduum, to be ready to celebrate. Forty days to walk with the catechumens, who like us, will then be baptized.”
After a year like 2020, when so many sacrifices were made — from lost jobs and financial security to family gatherings and traditions, and even lives lost — it may seem difficult to think of a proper Lenten resolution.
But Archbishop Vigneron offered some advice: instead of asking what to give up, ask what Jesus wants.
“Think about the perspective of Jesus as you concentrate on repentance and renewal. What’s in His mind? What’s Jesus thinking?” Archbishop Vigneron asked. “I suggest this: that you and I delight Him. We make His heart glad as we resolve to be more like Him. He is filled with delight at our resolve to receive more love from Him.”
In Massachusetts, Bishop William D. Byrne of Springfield likewise addressed about 100 congregants — socially distanced — at St. Michael’s Cathedral during the noontime Ash Wednesday Mass.
In his homily, he acknowledged the challenges of making Lenten sacrifices during a pandemic and the spiritual rewards that await the faithful at the culmination of these 40 days spent in the “desert” with Jesus.
“It’s not easy to figure out what to give up because we’ve given up so much stuff — not hanging out with our larger group of families, not going to a restaurant that we like to enjoy — and so it gives us a reminder, just as we hear in today’s Gospel, that Lent is not just about giving stuff up,” Bishop Byrne said.
“It’s about fasting, prayer, almsgiving,” he said, adding this should be the focus this year “because the whole goal of Lent is to get ready for Easter. It’s a time of preparation, not destination. I need to make sure that 40 days from now, I’m a little closer to my heavenly Father.”
“As we journey through this Lenten season,” he continued, “let’s keep our eyes on maybe going to our inner room a little more frequently, turning off things that may be distractions, give ourselves the gift of some silence, maybe when we take a walk, or early in the morning with our cup of coffee, to read some Scripture.”
“The power of this season” is not just about “giving something up,” Bishop Byrne said, because “if you finish this Lent and you have lost weight and your liver is healthier than it ever was, and you haven’t touched any chocolate, but you haven’t grown any closer to the heavenly Father through Jesus, don’t bother.”
“Go ahead, get your Hershey’s, have your chardonnay, because it’s not going to make any difference,” he explained.
The goal of the Lenten journey is first “to love God more deeply and to have that reflected in how we reach out and take care of the poor,” he said. “And so we begin anew, not just giving up, but actually getting closer to the Father and getting to serve the poor.”
Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez reminded Catholics that Lent is a good time to reflect on and center their lives on their purpose.
“We enter into Lent for a second year now under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic. Since last Lent, we have seen our lives disrupted and disordered by this deadly disease. Our faith has been tried and tested in many ways,” the archbishop said in his Lenten message published as his biweekly column in the Angelus News, the archdiocesan news outlet.
“My prayer this year is that we will make this Lent a time to renew our trust in the Lord, to strengthen our confidence in God’s personal love for each one of us,” he said.
“Through our prayer, our sacrifices, and almsgiving, I hope that we can come to a new awareness of God’s presence in this pandemic, to understand that even through the suffering and pain, God is carrying out his plan of love. He is still working to make us saints,” continued the archbishop, who celebrated Ash Wednesday Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, with limited in-person attendance.
“God is in charge, in the world and in our lives. What we cannot understand today, we will understand tomorrow. The scandal of evil, the innocent who suffer, the hardships that we and our loved ones must endure — in everything God is working according to His mysterious and loving purposes,” wrote Archbishop Gomez.
Meloy is a staff writer for Detroit Catholic, the news outlet of the Archdiocese of Detroit. Contributing to this story was Rebecca Drake, editor and news director of the Diocese of Springfield.
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