By Rev. Joseph Nangle, OFM, Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace

2 Chronicles 36:14-17, 19-23 | Ephesians 2:4-10 | John 3:14-21

Ash Wednesday Prayer Service at the White HouseChristians nowadays find renewed meaning in traditional penitential symbols and practices. Every Lent we numerous stories of faith communities retrieving such observances as fasting, donning sackcloth, marking with ashes, praying publicly. Almost universally, today’s return to the age-old rites and rituals of repentance and reconciliation has a connection with events in our society and around the world which cry out for forgiveness.

During the decades of the 1980’s, many of these penitential acts addressed the United States’ flawed policies toward Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The weekly Lenten witness of 1987, for example, found women and men from various Christian traditions carrying out public acts of prayer and penance on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in reparation for our country’s murderous interference in El Salvador.

Each Wednesday at noon during that Lenten season, a different Christian denomination took responsibility for the prayer, symbolism, and civil disobedience for that day. Scores of faithful people turned out to participate in these nonviolent calls for our country to discontinue its one-sided involvement in an internal struggle within that tiny country in Central America. Prayers for forgiveness sounded; participants wore burlap armbands to recall the sackcloth of another time; on one occasion ashes were placed on the foreheads of U.S. citizens by a Salvadoran refugee woman.

Other recent public acts of penance have included a forty-two day fast in preparation for “celebrating” the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival on the shores of this continent. Good Fridays in many cities across this country are marked by a public Way of the Cross. Each stop along the way marks a site which cries out for forgiveness, either because of the evil it is intended to remedy (a soup kitchen, night shelter, or home for battered women) or the veil it represents (an adult book store, bloated government agency, or multi-national corporation).

This kind of public penitential witness in the face of glaring societal evil takes its inspiration from today’s readings. We are not placed in this life only to work out our personal salvation, as so many Lenten reflections would have it. No, the whole world and all its issues stand under Biblical judgment. The Gospel today tells of Jesus’s words to Nicodemus, the representative of power, status quo and misused religiosity. The Teacher tells of the incredible Divine love for this world. God, he instructs the Pharisee, did not send the Only-begotten One into the world to condemn it, but that he world might be saved.

The world’s only superpower must learn from the fate of the Jewish nation, recorded in the day’s Hebrew Scripture. Because they “added infidelity to infidelity, practicing all the abominations of the nations and polluting God’s temple … (they were) carried captive to Babylon…” The need for traditional penitential actions on behalf of this nation continually challenges us. Who will stand before God to beg pardon by fasting and penance if not the people of faith in this land, who believe that Jesus saved the world, not by curing its ills, but by taking them on himself?

This reflection was written by Rev. Joseph Nangle, OFM in the reflection booklet, Lent 1997: Following Jesus on the Way to Calvary. The photo is by Bill Hughes. This year’s reflection booklet is by Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace Colleen Kelly, From Ashes to Resurrection, Dust to New Life, and is available as a download for purchase from the Pax Christi USA website. For more reflections and resources for Lent 2012, click here

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