3/8/2011 8:11:00 PM Lent's arrival calls us 'to do something great'
When thinking about the history of the United States, it is difficult not to think about Abraham Lincoln.
Born on February 12, 1809, Lincoln went from the most humble roots to become, some say, the greatest American president.
As you examine his life of only 56 years, particularly his writings and speeches, Lincoln seems profoundly religious. And, yet, his biographers agree that he was never baptized, never joined a church, and rarely mentioned Jesus. His widow, Mary Todd Lincoln, once remarked after his death, “He was a religious man always but he was not a technical Christian.”
When he first ran for Congress in 1846, Lincoln felt it necessary to describe his approach to organized religion, writing, “That I am not a member of any Christian Church is true but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or any denomination of Christians in particular.” On the contrary, Lincoln read the Bible often throughout his life, memorizing large portions of it and consulting it frequently (Daniel Burke, “Lincoln’s Faith Still a Puzzle,' Washington Post, February 7, 2009, page B09).
The 16th president did go to church services on occasion, at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. On one of these occasions — it was, as a matter of fact, Ash Wednesday, February 18, 1863 — President Lincoln listened intently to the sermon of the pastor, Reverend Phineas Gurley. After leaving the church, Lincoln was asked by his Pinkerton guard, “What did you think of the sermon, Mr. President?” Lincoln paused and said, “It was good.” Then he added reflectively, “But he never asked us to do something great.”
My sisters and brothers, we begin again. The season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday with the imposition of ashes on our foreheads in the sign of the cross. The ashes are, as we know, a “mark of our repentance” — the Liturgy tells us, a sign of blessing upon the “sinner who asks for God’s forgiveness.”
But the ashes are also a “sign of hope” and the healing that Christ brings and offers to the world.
We are surrounded by reminders of the journey that lies ahead of us in these 40 days: vestments changed to purple, the color of penance; the Mass stripped of “alleluias;” readings focused on conversion; fasting and abstinence required for those so bound on the Fridays of the season. These are all signs that remind us as we “begin again,” to actively seek to “be reconciled to God.”
During Lent, we Christians find common ground. Whatever labels we may use to describe ourselves or one another, Lent unites us in a common recognition that, no matter who we are or what we do, we have all sinned; that we have all failed, and that we are all in need of the mercy of God rooted as we are in a community founded by Jesus Christ who is our hope.
It is precisely because we share a common need for mercy, precisely because we share a common hope in Christ, that we are also called in this season “to do something great.”
As Catholics, the Church has given us the chance to begin again: an entire season marked with the sign of hope, the cross — “O crux, ave, spes unica” as we sing in the Church’s ancient hymn, “Hail, O Cross, our Only Hope.” Talk about doing something great: “Greater love than this no one has, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15: 13).
The cross of ashes that are placed on our heads at the beginning of Lent is not simply a liturgical symbol or sacramental. When we stand before the minister to receive the imprint of the cross, we are accepting the Lord Jesus’ invitation to follow him, to lay down our lives, to proclaim hope, to bring healing to a broken world — to do something great. The cross of ashes will wash away but they represent our decision that Christ our hope makes a difference in what we do because Christ has made a difference in who we are and hope to be.
With St. Paul, we affirm: “With Christ, I am nailed to the cross and the life I live is not my own — it is the life of Christ within me. I live now by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). There is hope, when there is faith in Christ, and when there is hope and faith in Christ, there can be love and healing for a broken world.
It was clear upon leaving that church on Ash Wednesday 1863, that Abraham Lincoln expected much more from the preacher that day.
And he had every right to, this man whose Second Inaugural Address was more homily than speech: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds… to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Perhaps the lesson for us, as Christians, is to expect more, much more from ourselves. Whether we choose to sacrifice by giving something up or simply by giving, Lent gives us the opportunity to do something great — but the choice is always ours.