Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent and prepares us for Easter by calling us to a time of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Given the dramatic state of the world today, with devastating wars and extreme weather events, a biblical exodus of refugees crossing borders and walls built higher and higher to keep them out, the answer to the question: Where is God speaking to us today? is crucial, and for many, a matter of life and death.
How are we called to respond to those who cry out to us for justice and mercy?
God speaks to us from a wounded Earth and from a wounded humanity, and invites us to respond to the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor. The season of Lent invites us to imagine these real-life Gospel scenes, and to respond with mercy and justice:
Picture the drama of Syrian families fleeing from a terrible war, setting out to sea on precarious boats with their children, not knowing if they will arrive safely to a friendly shore in Europe. Picture the mothers and children fleeing the gang violence in their poor neighborhoods in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, undertaking a dangerous journey and risking an uncertain future in the United States.
Does not God speak in their cries of desperation, their tears of anguish? And if so, do we hear them?
Picture the drama of climate change across the world, with extreme weather events, devastating floods, severe droughts, rising sea levels, melting glaciers.
Picture thousands of species that are disappearing, never to return again, vulnerable communities and a fragile planet that may not be welcoming to future generations of children.
Does not God speak in the cry of the Earth, yearning, like the refugees and migrants, to breathe free? And if so, do we hear it?
The readings from Ash Wednesday invite us into a posture of humility and penance, but also a posture of urgency and action, fostered by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These are ancient practices, but the goal is not only a clean heart, but a people with a heart of mercy and justice, which shows compassion towards those whose lives are at risk.
As we move toward the drama of Holy Week and Good Friday, we are reminded that the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor are very much the cry of a crucified earth and a crucified people.
"Return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning."
I think of the many faithful witnesses to the Gospel, those "first responders," those humble fisherfolk who stand on the shores of Greek islands, ready to rescue the Syrian refugees and to welcome them with open arms. I think, too, of the Kino Border Initiative and the Columban Mission Center on the US-Mexico border and their welcome to immigrant mothers and children. I think especially of Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas (which has welcomed more than 120,000 refugees in 35 years) and the words of its founder, Ruben Garcia, who refers to the "immigrant crisis" as a "moral crisis":
"The immigrant crisis has nothing to do with the numbers of immigrants arriving at the border, for the land is vast and the space is welcoming. . . . It has nothing to do a lack of places to receive and shelter the many, for the churches are empty and in search of an identity of what it means to be church. What it does have to do with is our moral integrity as individuals and as a people, for we are in danger. We are in danger of looking inwardly and discovering only a profound emptiness. . . . This emptiness can only be filled by the God who comes to us in the distressing disguise of the poor, the immigrant poor."
Are we truly our brother's keeper? Do we truly care for our sister's need? Are we truly a society that feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, and welcomes the stranger in our midst? Are we a generation that feels a responsibility to caring for creation and to preparing a welcome for future generations.
Yes, we believe in the resurrection. But we must first stand in solidarity at the foot of the cross before we can proclaim the joy of Easter morning.
"Now is the acceptable time" to show mercy and compassion; "now is the day of salvation."
Scott Wright is Director of the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach in Washington DC