Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:12-19 / Matthew 6:16-21

Grant us, O Lord, to begin the exercises of our Christian warfare with holy fastings, that we who are to fight against the powers of darkness may be strengthened by the power of self-restraint: through Christ our Lord. Amen.

When first learning the game of chess, one tends to lose through two equally bad, but opposite strategies. On the one hand, the player might be too timid. He might be so worried about losing one of his pieces that he arranges them with the hopes that not one will be taken by his opponent. Of course, this is a losing gambit. There is no way to render one's piece immune to capture in chess. Moreover, too defensive a strategy will ironically give the opponent, the aggressor, an advantage. Since he cannot be prevented from taking your pieces, but because he is not threatened by any of them, he can bide his time and prepare for a final and irresistible assault on the king.

On the other hand, the player might be too aggressive. Enamored of he graceful sweep of the bishop, the nimble jump of the knight, the forceful assertion of the rook, or the terrible power of the queen, he places them in play early and often. Any chance to take a piece he will, only to find that the very pieces that had impressed him before can fall as easily to a pawn as any other. Too late he remembers that all of power of these pieces must be arranged to protect his own king as well. His unrestrained playing will leave his opponent too many occasions to take what was most precious, the very goal of the game.

As we begin our Lent, our holy Mother, the Church, reminds us that as in chess, so in the spiritual life, we can afford neither to be pacific towards our true enemies nor wanton and prodigal in using our strength. By taking upon our foreheads the ashes of the Ninevites, we enroll in the militia christiana, the Christian warfare. Our task is to fight and to gain ground, not to stay in place in the vain hope of protecting ourselves from loss. The decisive battle won by the cross of Jesus Christ does not preclude our making advances into hostile territory still occupied by enemy forces, those proud, greedy, lecherous, wrathful, gluttonous, envious and slothful parts of our souls.

By the same token, our Christian warfare is a long campaign meant to last a lifetime. Even over the course of the year, we do not strive collectively to make major advances save in these holy times of penitence. Nor do we do so all at once. We prepare ourselves in Septuagesimatide, and now we begin in earnest, but with slow, deliberate speed. We pace ourselves, and are strengthened by the power of self restraint.

Today we have made our opening. Perhaps a classic move, unsurprising but effective nonetheless. Perhaps we have committed to a less common but equally winning strategy. Or perhaps we have botched the opening a bit. Whatever the opening, we have a way to go, and the end game is far from sight. Without forgetting for a moment the task, the goal which draws us to the strife, we ought now to focus on the play at hand.

Look mercifully, O Lord, upon all who bow themselves before your majesty that such as have been refreshed by your divine gift may evermore be nourished by your heavenly aid.

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