Sunday, March 6, is the Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time. March 9 is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, a day of mandatory fasting and abstinence from meat, but not a holy day of obligation regarding Mass attendance.
Deuteronomy 11:18, 26-28; Psalm 31:2-4, 17, 25; Romans 3:21-25, 28; Matthew 7:21-27
The readings for Sunday are about making key choices in your life. On Ash Wednesday, you begin a season of repentance where you can make key choices a habit.
Moses presents the first choice in the first reading. It’s the choice between a blessing and a curse, “a blessing for obeying the commandments of the Lord, your God … a curse if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord, your God.”
It is important to recognize how this blessing and curse are awarded. They aren’t capricious. They aren’t a handout on the one hand and a slap on the wrist on the other.
We make the mistake of thinking that God is a taskmaster who demands certain things of us on a whim and gets mad when we won’t cooperate. He isn’t a taskmaster; he’s the ground of all reality.
You will not necessarily be rewarded or punished for your choices. Rather, your choices naturally allow you to thrive or prevent you from thriving.
Now, to simply choose to live morally because that is the way of the world is Stoicism, not Christianity. Moses doesn’t leave it at that, and neither does St. Paul when he points to a second choice: God’s choice.
God isn’t simply the ground of reality; he is a real person who really loves each of us individually.
St. Paul goes a step further. He says we “all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God.” We don’t just need to follow the rules; we need to restore our relationship with our Maker. We can’t restore that relationship on our own. He has to choose us. He does: We “are justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus.”
God himself has accepted us in Christ. He has opened his arms to us and given us every aid we need.
Which brings us to the Gospel.
Jesus fills in St. Paul’s picture. He points out that our choice of him is not the only factor.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of heaven,” he says, “but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”
Then he goes on to make a crucial distinction. The people who succeed in life are those who “listen to these words of mine and act on them” — in other words, the people who have a relationship with him and who share his life. This is the third choice: the choice to cooperate in Christ’s plan, aligning our lives not just with his commandments, but with his plan for the world.
This Ash Wednesday begins Lent, when we fast, pray and give alms. Doing so can make the three choices alive in your life:
Fast to improve your ability to live God’s commandments, learning to choose him over your appetites.
Pray so that you can acknowledge and honor God’s decision to choose you; remember your status as his creature and thank him for his many gifts.
Give alms in order to find ways to cooperate with Christ’s will for the world.
Tom and April Hoopes write from Atchison, Kansas,
where Tom is writer in residence at Benedictine College.