Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday

Paul was about to lose everything.

When the economy was good, he made a lot of money as a building contractor. But he overextended himself buying cars, eating out at expensive restaurants and taking lavish vacations. Now that his work had slowed down, he was left with a huge mortgage and credit card debt that he knew he could never pay off. His personal finances created so much tension in his home that his wife eventually left him. Finally, the bank foreclosed on his home and he had no where to go until a friend offered to let him live in his basement.

A client whom Paul had done work for in the past heard about his dire situation and decided he would try to help him. He had a piece of land sitting vacant and decided to hire Paul to build a house on it. He immediately agreed and was excited to finally have some work. At the same time, Paul was not sure when he would work again so he wanted to make as much money at this job as he could. He cut corners on the construction to save money and pocket the difference. Though his client provided good quality materials such as granite counter tops and hardwood flooring, he would sell them to other contractors and buy cheaper quality products instead. At the end, it was not the house he agreed to build but a much inferior product. He figured he would probably never see this client again so he was happy just to make whatever money he could out of the project.

When the construction was complete, Paul went to the client’s house to deliver the keys to him. However, the client surprised him when he said, “No. You keep them. I am giving the house to you.” Paul was shocked. “What do you mean?” he asked. The client answered, “Well I knew you were struggling and I had this piece of land which I wasn’t using, so I figured I would help you out by not only giving you some work but providing a home for you to live in. It is yours.” Stunned by his client’s generosity, Paul was left speechless. At the same time, he realized that if  he knew he was going to end up owning the house, he would have done a much better job building it.

Today, we begin the great season of Lent. Forty days to reflect on our lives as we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is a time for us to think about what kind of house we are building for ourselves. What are we doing with the materials God has sent us? Are we using them as he intended or are we trading them in for cheap substitutes? Are we putting our best effort into building a life that is pleasing to God or are we just trying to get by with as little work as possible? At this point in our journey, are our lives something that we can be proud of or have we really made a mess of things? These days give us time to look over what we have done, to repair what is broken and to resolve to do a better job going forward.

The key to building a strong home is first laying down a firm foundation. The foundation of our lives is Jesus. He created us and sustains us with His grace. He provides everything we need to build holy and good lives. If our lives are not what we want them to be, if we are not happy with the direction in which our lives are headed, the first thing to do is turn to Him. He will provide the answer. Once we fix our relationship with Him through confessing our sins, doing penance and resolving not to sin again, the other broken things in our lives will start to be repaired. These forty days of Lent, above all else, are a time for us to get back to what is most basic, our relationship with our Lord.

When our homes need repair sometimes it is very tempting just to make cosmetic changes and not fix the real problem. For example, if we have a hole in the wall, we may want to just hang a picture up to cover it rather than do the work of plastering the wall and repainting it. The same is true of our spiritual lives. We may show up at Mass, not eat meat on Fridays and sacrifice something small throughout these weeks of Lent out of a sense of obligation rather than out of a desire to make our lives pleasing to Jesus. We think we may be “covering our bases” but in the end we are really cheating ourselves. We are missing out on the opportunity to make a real change in our lives. Jesus explicitly tells us in today’s gospel that He is looking for more than outward expressions of faith. Rather He is looking for real, heartfelt conversion. He does not just want a change in our behavior, but a change in our heart. That can only happen if we come to Mass and make sacrifices not out of a sense of duty but out of a sense of love. It can only happen when we allow Jesus to touch our hearts and change us.

That is what Jesus expects from us during this Lenten season. And it is possible because He has already provided us with all the materials we need to build lives that are pleasing to Him. Have we settled for cheaper substitutes? Have we failed to give Him our best effort in return for all He has done for us? As Saint Paul tells us, now is the time to change that with God’s help.

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