One of my dearest friends used to have a sign on the outside of his office door. It read, “O Lord, make me interruptible.” It was an act of hospitality, of course, but also a sincere prayer. I’ve tried to imitate this, but the fact is, I don’t like interruptions. I don’t like having my very important train of thought derailed, my time taken in an unplanned way by God-knows-what. Then I think of St. Benedict saying, “Let every guest be received as Christ himself.” Even the rudest, most untimely interruption could be a visit from no less than the Savior himself.
Friends, Lent is an interruption. It starts, for heaven’s sake, on a Wednesday. It tears a work week in half. For most of us, it could hardly be more interruptive than coming during a busy February school week. Our thoughts are not on our spiritual lives, but on exams coming up, cranking out papers, and spring break plans. This is not convenient timing for us, if God wants our attention. We’re busy people, and we’re doing good things.
But the interruption of Ash Wednesday is about as intentional as it can be. Into the busy city, into our crowded, task-filled lives steps the prophet Joel, in our first reading, who says, “Blow the trumpet! Proclaim a fast! Call an assembly! Hold everything! Drop what you’re doing! Gather everybody! We have an important message from God! And it can’t wait!” No one is exempt, not even the bride and the bridegroom. That’s how important and urgent is the message of this day.
We had a test the other day of the emergency notification system here on campus. Imagine the campus being blanketed with text messages, emails, voicemails, broadcasts, loudspeakers saying, “Put down what you’re doing... push yourself away from the computer screen... suspend the video game... look up from your research... there is an emergency requiring your attention and immediate action!” And imagine everyone – from the humblest dishwasher in North Dining Hall to the most famous endowed professor, from Accounts Payable to Development to the motor pool, from Architecture to Zoology, from first-year students to the upper recesses of the Main Building, from the most devout Catholic to the person who hasn’t thought of God or the larger meaning of life in years – imagine everyone dropping to their knees to implore and acknowledge the utterly essential nature of God’s mercy.
Remember that scene from The West Wing, when President Bartlett got down on his knees in the Oval Office, and confessed his sins? Yeah, I know, it was just TV. But it still made me shiver. All power finally bows to the sovereignty of God. All human plans come to naught. All human pride is as thin as the ashes of our Palm Sunday “Hosannas!” blown away in a stiff wind.
No, today it is not business as usual. Our Scripture readings veritably cry out to us that a lot is at stake. Whatever we cling to tightly, whatever tethers us or binds us or weighs us down from the true freedom for which we were made – today we want to at least begin to loosen our grasp, and give it back to its rightful owner.
So we have suspended our usual lives, at least for this hour, to gather, to get on our knees and pray, to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God’s news, God’s good news, God’s promise to heal and transform. We soil ourselves with the blackness of the earth itself, a humbling reminder that our best intentions, our best resolutions, our best efforts have too often crumbled to dust in the ways we allow ourselves to be pulled in other directions. We don’t do any of these things to be noticed. Jesus gives us a more than adequate warning against religious showmanship. We do Ash Wednesday not to look good, but because God wants to make us become good. The purpose is the heart, or Lent has no purpose at all.
We have a compass, a direction for our 40-day walk in the desert, and it points to Easter. Where do want to be, as Christians, as people, come Easter? We want to be ready, of course. But readiness is not as simple as how hard or long we pray, how severely we fast or how many things we give up, how much money we give to charity or how many hours of service we do. It is really about how deeply we can yield to what God wants to do with us, in us, through us. If we’re not careful, our Lenten activity and religious practices can reinforce our sense of control, when the invitation is always to give up control and trust God alone. In other words, to allow God to be God for us.
“Now is the acceptable time,” says St. Paul. “Now is the day of salvation!” The interruption of Ash Wednesday cracks us open. Through that crack, how deep will we allow God to go in us this Lent?
O Lord, make us interruptible.
This homily was preached at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on Ash Wednesday 2016.