THE SECOND reading for the Mass of Ash Wednesday is from St Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians where he quotes from Isaiah (ch 49):
At the favourable time I have listened to you; on the day of salvation I have come to your help.
He then goes on to say:
Now is the favourable time; this is the day of salvation.
I don’t think either Isaiah or Paul actually had Lent in mind and, of course, any time is a good time to become closer to God. There is no need to wait for Lent. But rather like one of those intensive language courses which immerses the pupil totally in the language for a short period of time so the Church puts maximum effort into this six-week penitential blitz which it links to Christ’s 40-day fast in the desert.
Prayer and the mortification of the flesh are two essentials on the path to holiness. Prayer because it is the only way we have of talking to God (and listening to Him as well) and mortification because the flesh wants its own way and that way does not lead to God. So a ready-made template for us to follow for six weeks (because without that most of us would manage to find some excellent reason to put it off!) can indeed be called “the favourable time”.
The first psalm of Lauds for Ash Wednesday is, unsurprisingly, Psalm 50 (51),
Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness. In your compassion blot out my offence,
often called the ‘Miserere’.( It is also said at Lauds every Friday morning throughout the year except on feast days.)
It is a heart-felt confession and a plea for forgiveness and I would recommend it to anyone as a core element in daily prayer every day during Lent.
Traditionally this “favourable time” has been a time for “giving up” something — alcohol, sweets, cigarettes — as a form of penance, and this is certainly, as they say, “good for the soul”. There are other aspects of this element of sacrifice, a form of fasting if you like, which have a slightly more positive character but also involve “giving up” something.
Can you manage daily Mass? That in itself is a positive act, not especially penitential except that involves a certain amount of personal inconvenience, but it has to replace somehing else if only because there are only 24 hours in the day!
How about the Daily Office?
Seven times a day do I praise thee because of thy righteous judgments. (Ps 119).
Seven might be a bit much (though all the Liturgical Hours are available on-line) but Morning Prayer would only mean getting up quarter of an hour earlier and Night Prayer would just mean not reading another chapter of that book for the next few weeks.
My own plan for last thing at night (before Night Prayer which is supposed to be the last thing before going to sleep) is going to be to read the Gospels from beginning to end, only leaving all the chapters that include the Last Supper and Our Lord’s Passion for Holy Week.
(And the chapters dealing with the Resurrection for the week of Easter, but that’s another story.)
I wonder how we’ll all get on.