The second reading for Ash Wednesday invites us to apply to the season of Lent the words, first, of the prophet and, second, of the apostle: “‘In an acceptable time I heard you, and on the day of salvation I helped you.’ Behold, now is the acceptable time! Behold, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Cor 6:2). Here are two passages in which St. Augustine echoed the theme:
In the first, he has been urging his people not to put off their conversion.
What’s that you say?
“God promised me forgiveness; he’ll give it when I turn back to him.”
Of course he’ll give it when you turn back to him, but why are you not turning back to him?
“Because whenever I turn back, he’ll give it.”
Yes, indeed, when you turn back, he will give it, but when is that “when” of yours? Why is it not today? Why not as you listen to me? Why not when you cry out? Why not when you praise? Let my shouting be a helper on your behalf; let your cry be a witness against you. Why not today? Why not now? (Augustine, Sermon 20, 4; PL 38, 140-41)
That judgment will come…, and you who in this life refused to set your heart right to the rightness of God and to prepare yourself for his right hand where “all the right of heart will be praised,” you will be on his left where you will hear: “Go into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt 25: 34, 41). And will there be time then to set your heart right? Set it right now, then, brothers and sisters; set it right now. What is stopping you? The Psalm is sung, the Gospel is read, the reader has spoken, the preacher has spoken. The Lord is patient. You sin, and he forgives. You sin again, and he forgives again, and then you add another. How long must God be patient?
You know that God is also just. We frighten because we’re afraid. Teach us not to fear and we won’t frighten you. But God teaches us to fear better than anyone teaches not to fear. For “everyone has feared, and they proclaim the works of God” (Ps 63:10). May God reckon us among those who feared and proclaimed. Because we fear, we are proclaiming to you, brothers and sisters. We see how eager you are to hear the word, how urgently you demand it, how much you love us. The rain is falling on the ground; let it yield grain and not thorns; there’s a barn for grain but fire for thorns. You know what to do with your field, and does God not know what to do with his servant? The rain that falls on the fertile field is welcome, and so is the rain that falls on the thorny field. Will the field that yielded thorns accuse the rain? Will not that rain be a witness at God’s judgement and say, “I fell sweetly on all the fields”? So look at what you’re yielding and consider what’s being prepared for you. If you’re yielding grain, expect the barn; if you’re yielding thorns, expect the fire. But the time for the barn and the time for the fire have not yet come. Prepare now, and you will not be afraid.
We who are speaking to you in Christ’s name are alive, and so are you to whom we are speaking. There is still space and time, is there not, for getting one’s plans right, for changing a wicked life into a good one. If you want it, can it not happen today? If you want it, can it not occur now? What must you buy in order to do it? What medicines do you have to search for? To what Indies must you sail? What ship must you get ready? Change your heart while I’m speaking, and that happens which you have cried for so often and so long, and if it does not happen, the result is eternal punishment. (Augustine, EnPs 63, 19; PL 36, 772)