Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with the weapons of self-restraint. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever (Collect from Ash Wednesday Mass).
Today we are bid to embark upon a 40-day sojourn with Our Lord Jesus Christ: an intense period of repentance, prayer, penance, fasting and alms-giving. As we accompany our Lord along the Way of the Cross, we are invited to deepen our relationship with Him – we are summoned to allow Him the opportunity to exchange our stony hearts for natural hearts. Neither Our Lord – nor His Holy Church – forces us to repent and change our lives – we are merely invited. The decision is ultimately ours; yet should we choose to accept the summons, and spend these brief winter’s days striving to encounter our Lord, our lives will never be the same.
We begin the journey marked with the Sign of the Cross as ashes are placed upon our foreheads. This visible sign is sealed with the verbal challenge to “repent and believe in the Gospel,” and to “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Before the ashes are distributed, they are solemnly blessed by a priest.
With earnest supplication on our behalf, He prays:
Dear brethren, let us humbly ask God Our Father that He be pleased to bless with an abundance of His grace these ashes, which will be put on our heads in penitence.
O God Who are moved by acts of humility and respond with forgiveness to works of penance, lend Your merciful ear to our prayers and in your kindness pour out the grace of Your blessing on Your servants who are marked with these ashes, that as they follow the Lenten observances they may be worthy to come with minds made pure to celebrate the Pascal Mystery of Your Son. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen. (Daily Roman Missal).
The metaphor of a spiritual retreat, a sojourn through a spiritual desert, is often applied to the Lenten journey. Just as Christ spent forty days in the desert engaged in intense prayer and fasting, we too are asked to follow in His footsteps.
This week I have been prayerfully contemplating my own Lenten journey, I concluded that I need the spiritual support of a guide. I need the intercession of one whose Holy Heart has already been perfected, and one whose protection and guidance I may securely rely upon. My thoughts of course turned to St. Joseph. Scripture tells us that St. Joseph was a “just man” (Matthew 1:19). In his compassion, he sought to do what was right and pleasing to the Lord – even in difficult circumstances (Matthew 1: 20-24, Matthew 2:13-14).
I too endeavor to do what is right and pleasing to the Lord. While St. Joseph was a righteous and good man, Our Lord sought to stretch the capacity of his already holy heart. Scripture tells us: “For whom the Lord loves, He chastises; and He scourges every son whom He receives (Hebrews 12: 6).”
Like so many other beloved servants, it was through trial and suffering that Our Lord chose to perfect St. Joseph as a smith refines the finest silver. I’ve been told that as a silversmith refines an object of silver, he carefully heats it in a flame. The smith must be careful not to overheat the desired object because silver tends to oxidize, and if he is not careful the piece can be ruined if it is left in the flame too long. Thus, the silversmith must be attentive to the process of perfection: his eyes must always remain on the object he is attempting to refine. When the purification is complete, it shines with brilliance, and smith’s own image is beautifully reflected in it.
Thus it is with God. Just as He refined the Holy Heart of St. Joseph through trial and suffering, He offers to perfect each of our human hearts as well. In submitting to the loving hands of the Master Smith, our hearts will bear the beautiful reflection of His Divine visage.
St. Joseph was uniquely qualified for his mission here on earth. He was immediately obedient, accustomed to hard work, chaste, willing to seek the Will of Almighty God in each and every situation. St. Joseph listened more than he spoke, and was ever willing to set aside his own personal plans and in favor of fulfilling the design of God. Scripture tells us that when the Angel of the Lord appears to St. Joseph in a dream and bids him to “Rise, take the Child Jesus and His mother, [and] flee to Egypt and stay there until I tell you (Matthew 2: 13),” St. Joseph immediately complies with the command of the angel. Likewise, when the Angel of the Lord reappears in a subsequent dream and announces: “Rise, take the Child Jesus and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the Child’s life are dead (Matthew 2: 20),” again St. Joseph acts immediately and decisively in accordance with the summons of the angelic messenger. Scripture indicates that Joseph again responded to yet another dream and settles with his Holy Family in Nazareth.
The Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years as a result of their disobedience and hard-heartedness (Numbers 32: 11-13).
Remember how for forty years now the Lord, your God, has directed your journeying in the desert, so as to test you by affliction and find out whether or not it was your intention to keep His commandments. He therefore let you be afflicted with hunger, and then fed you with manna, a food unknown to your forefathers, in order to show you that not by bread alone does man live, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. The clothing did not fall from you in tatters, nor did your feet swell these forty years. So you must realize that the Lord, your God, disciplines you even as a man disciplines his son (Deuteronomy 8: 1-5).
These forty years of wandering and discipline stand in stark contrast to the journey of St. Joseph and the Holy Family. While that is not to say their journey was at all easy, it certainly didn’t take forty years. For some objects of silver, the Master Smith must refine them in the flame a bit longer than others…. As I embark upon this Lenten journey through the spiritual desert, I am going to consciously chose St. Joseph and invoke his intercession and aid. Cognizant that he traveled with Our Blessed Lord and Lady, I am sure that he will have the grace to protect me through whatever trials the Lord deems necessary to purify my being as I endeavor to reach the Pascal celebration with a pure and holy heart.
Dear St. Joseph,
As I embark upon this Lenten journey, help me to realize that I am not alone. Hold my hand, and guide my steps as you did so long ago for Jesus and Mary. Protect my heart from distractions and dangers as I traverse the sands of time. Teach me to surrender fully to God’s providential care, and to respond immediately to His summons. Help me to repent of the past, and embrace the present in a spirit of prayer and penitence, as we journey toward the Resurrection of your Divine Son. May I learn to embrace Jesus and Mary with love like yours, and may my heart swell to fully reflect the image of the Risen Christ when my journey is complete. St. Joseph, foster-father of Jesus, protector of the Holy Family, be my guide!
Blessed Lenten Journey,
Ad Jesum per Mariam,