The prophet’s words, “In a time of favor, I answer you; on the day of salvation I help you” (Is 49:8), are echoed by the Apostle: “As your fellow workers we beg you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For he says, ‘In an acceptable time I have heard you; on a day of salvation I have helped you.’ Now is the acceptable time! Now is the day of salvation!” (2 Cor 6:2).

This text in turn is used as the second reading for the Mass of Ash Wednesday and is meant to propose Lent as the “day of salvation” and “the acceptable time.” Augustine once took up the theme when he urged sinners to conversion, thinking perhaps especially of those in his congregation who were putting off enrolling for baptism. He, of course, had done the same thing, unable or rather unwilling to give up his life of sensuality; he recalled his youthful prayer: “‘Lord, grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.’ I was afraid you might hear my prayer quickly, and that you might too rapidly heal me of the disease of lust which I preferred to satisfy rather than suppress” (Confessions, VIII, vii, 17; the whole chapter is on his struggle to take the step even after he had become intellectually, notionally, convinced that he should become a Christian).

In one sermon, Augustine imagines a conversation between himself and a member of his congregation:

God’s providence mercifully surrounds you on every side.

“God promised me forgiveness; he’ll give it when I turn to him.”

Of course he’ll give it when you turn to him, but why are you not turning to him?

“Because whenever I turn, he’ll give it.”

Well, of course, he’ll give it when you turn to him. But when is that “when” of yours? Why not today? Why not while you’re listening to me? Why not while you’re shouting your approval? Why not while you’re praising me? Let my shouting help you; let your shout be a witness against yourself. Why not today? Why not now?

“Tomorrow,” he says, “God promised me pardon.”

So you, you’re promising yourself a tomorrow?  (Sermon 20, 4; PL 38, 140-41)

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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