What is an authentic sacrifice? A broken heart, says today’s Psalm

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March 8 / Friday after Ash Wednesday

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For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.~ Ps 51:16-17

When I was growing up, the impending arrival of Lent brought on great anxiety over what to give up — soda? chocolate? or most drastically, all sweets? Before deciding, I would carefully check the spring calendar, to see whether the days of Lent coincided with a birthday party or a family trip that might put my resolve to the test. As each candy-less week went by, I hung on for dear life until the feast day of Sunday, when I could gorge myself on whatever I had been deprived of for the previous six days. While my intentions were good, I can’t say for sure that this annual act of self-sacrifice had any spillover effects on the rest of my life — was I less prone to pick a fight with my sisters? Doubtful. More willing to walk the beagles or load the dishwasher? Unlikely. More diligent about keeping my desk organized and my clothes picked up? Definitely not. Rather than choose truly sacrificial actions, I fell back on the presumed righteousness of the mere gesture. Such sacrificial veneer is what the psalmist takes issue with today. Acts of repentance that are merely cosmetic do not signify. God doesn’t want our grand but empty gestures, and God sees them for what they often are: window-dressing. What God does want us to offer is our whole hearts, shattered by the awareness of how far we have strayed from his path; broken by the realization of the effects of our sinful actions on our neighbors and ourselves; and offered up with the humility of a chastened spirit.

Lord Jesus Christ, grant me the courage to make authentic sacrifices and the humility to come before you with a truly penitential heart.Amen.

For today’s readings, click here.

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