Each one, as a good manager of God's different gifts, must use for the good of others the special gift he has received from God. (1 Peter 4:10)

Ash Wednesday, and Love Above All

We’ve developed a new family tradition in recent years, attending a very early morning Mass together on Ash Wednesday so that we greet the Lenten season with willing hearts, and greet our world early with the telltale cross of ashes on our foreheads. The four of us – daughter, son-in-law, 2-1/2-year-old granddaughter, and Grannie – shared our early morning with a fair number of hardy worshippers. I hope and pray that those who were in a church for the first time in a long time will be back early and often, finding their way to the cross and the tomb and, by that path, to the Resurrection.

One of the thoughts on my mind this early Ash Wednesday morning is a comment I’ve been hearing over the past few days, a word of caution that when we give up things for Lent, we need to take care how we fill the empty space they leave behind. It occurs to me that of all the merits of Lenten penance, the greatest benefit is the opportunity to create more space for God. Even while we may be gaining the physical benefits of replacing a craving for sweets or alcohol, or the mental and emotional benefits of reducing our participation in social media and games, we have a chance to gain even greater spiritual benefit by making extra “space” for our relationship with Jesus.

Creating that space is, of course, never enough. Once the space is created, we reap great spiritual benefit by remembering to invite Jesus into it, asking Him to fill it and begging the Holy Spirit to use it so that our devotion to the Father can grow. I want to fill the spaces I am creating with prayer – to continuously have the name of Jesus in my heart and mind, to turn my heart and mind often throughout the day to tell Him I love Him, to ask for His love and mercy, and to listen for His voice to lead me.

This becomes the great benefit of “giving up” something for Lent – more room for God. And as it seems with all things around Him, when we think we are sacrificing, He is turning our sacrifices into even greater love.

It’s this love that I want to reflect on today. We are called by Jesus to love God above all things – above parents, children, and all material goods; literally, to love Him more than we love even ourselves. (Matt. 10:37) And that is a hard teaching. The world tells us that we must love our families and protect them above all else. We buy pretty easily into the idea of loving our neighbor as ourselves, because this teaching at least suggests that we are allowed to love ourselves. But loving God more than mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter? That’s a huge step.

The thing is, it’s the one step that puts us squarely in the place where grace can find us and fill us. It is the one and only way that we can ever hope to live through our time in this world in a way that brings us to the light of God’s face for eternity.

We think it’s hard because we like to see things as mutually exclusive. If we love God with all our hearts and minds and souls and strength, we think that means not loving our families and friends as much. We think that God is asking us to choose Him over our parents and children and siblings, as if putting Him first works to the detriment of everyone else.

And that’s just not how any of this works.

When we love God first and above all others, with our whole hearts and minds and souls and strength, it is not to love others less. Rather, it is to love them with God’s love.

That’s right. Into the space we create when we love God above all, He pours His own love. He places there His own heart, and He fills us completely with the kind of heart and the kind of love we need for loving others. When we love God above all else, we love others with God’s love.

I think that’s the key to whatever Lenten observances we are led to choose. Let us pray to our Father in love for His guidance, so that what we choose, out of the love He pours back into us, will more fully express our love for others.

Of course, Lent is a time for us to remember our sinfulness – and then to remember that God has found us worthy of redemption, because He created us out of His great love. Let all of our penance and all of our prayer and all of our actions be a response to that greatest of loves.

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