Isaiah 1:10, 16-20
Well, it has been almost two weeks now since the first day of Lent, when most of us had our foreheads marked with a cross of ashes. It’s a good time to ask ourselves how it’s going.
Today’s Gospel moves us deeper into the spirit of Lent and challenges us to carry the Cross of Jesus in our hearts rather than on our foreheads.
Religion can sometimes be such a pretence–like the Pharisees in today’s Gospel who are mostly pretending to be righteous. They paraded around in their religious "costumes" so that people could see how special they were. It’s a comical image, as Jesus describes them, with their extra large phylacteries and streaming tassels. (Phylacteries are little boxes hung on the wrists and forehead and over the heart, usually containing Scriptural prayers like the Schema Israel: "Hear Israel, the Lord our god is Lord alone. Therefore you shall love the Lord with all your heart, your mind and soul." Religious people took literally the admonition to have the Law always at hand and before their eyes. And tassels were attached to the four corners of their robes as a reminder that the Law extends in every direction.)
Jesus warns us today not to pretend to be something we are not. When it comes to true religion, the simpler and more honest the better-because God knows everything and it doesn’t matter so much what everybody else thinks.
There is a wonderful story that Viktor Frankl, the Jewish psychiatrist, tells in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, where he describes some of the horrors of the death camps in World War II. When he was arrested he tried to hide in the lining of his coat his life’s work-a manuscript on psychiatry. But they took everything from him, even his coat. Eventually he was given the coat of another man who had been sent to the gas chamber. In the pocket, Frankl found a single page of Scripture-the Schema Israel. It suddenly became clear to him that the real meaning of life was not in his great book, but in his simple relationship to God.
So having begun our Lenten journey with an external mark on our foreheads, let us allow the grace of this season to transform our inner hearts. In the words and after the example of St. Paul the Apostle, let us strive only to "put on Christ."
Fr. Jim Strommer, C.P. is on the Provincial Council and lives in Citrus Heights, CA.