A Marian Lent, Ash Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Cesi Chapel, St. Mary Major Basilica, Rome
Ash Wednesday
February 18, 2015
Joel 2:12-18, Ps 51, 2 Cor 5:20-6:2, Mt 6:1-6.16-18










To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:


The following points were attempted in the homily:

  • A good pilgrimage prepares us very well for Lent, because Lent is a pilgrimage, a journey, a change not just of location but in many other ways. It’s a journey with Jesus. It’s a journey with each other. It’s not meant to be a tiny course correction in our life, but something that does for our soul what a pilgrimage like the one we’re on does for our sleeping patterns, our gastronomy, our priorities, our bank accounts. It’s in Lent that Jesus himself announces a pilgrimage and wants to serve as the expert guide. And just like my Mother has come on this pilgrimage to bring salt, leaven and light (!), so on the pilgrimage of Lent Jesus sends us his mother to do something far greater. What I’d like to do is to examine together the four lessons that the Church has given us to guide us on this pilgrimage with Christ from a Marian key, because Mary teaches us how to be a good pilgrim in Lent and in life.
  • The first message is given to us by God through the Prophet Joel. It’s the fundamental theme of Lent. “Return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, weeping and mourning. Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return.” Lent is fundamentally about the transformation and healing of our heart. Just like a cardiologist often has to tell people that there’s a ten, or a 30, or a 90 percent blockage, so at the beginning of Lent God tells us that our hearts have a sizable blockage in them to allowing the healing, redeeming blood of Jesus to flow in them, a hardening of our arteries to take his blood into our extremities and all parts of our life. But the Divine Physician gives us in this message not a prognosis of death but a prescription for life. We can be healed. But it begins with surgery, with ripping our hearts open. God wants us to “rend our hearts,” to open them up, to examine them, to give him the permission for a heart transplant. Then, he wants us to return to him with our whole heart, with all our love and affection. This is totally different from the action that is described in the Gospel verse, “If today your hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” Today the first challenge for us is whether we’re going to rend our hearts and return to the Lord with all our hearts or whether we’re going to harden them to his offer of healing. The one who shows us how to love God with our whole heart is Mary. Her hearts was pure and saw God and his love in everything. Hers was a receptive heart, treasuring all God has said and done within. It was an obedient heart ready to act on the word heard, as Pope Francis said this morning is done by everyone who is his mother, brother and sister. It was a loving, self-giving heart, pouring itself out for others. Her heart had all of these properties because it was united to her Son’s. In the Communion hymn today we’ll see that. We’ll sing about her heart on Calvary, “Through her heart, his sorrow sharing … now at length the sword has passed.” That heart is supposed to appeal to our own. “Can the human heart refrain from partaking in her pain, in that mother’s pain untold?” We beg her: “O sweet Mother! Fount of love. Touch my spirit from above, make my heart with your accord. Make me feel as you have felt; make my soul to glow and melt. With the love of Christ, my Lord.” Mary wants to align our heart to hers and help us share in the fullness of her Son’s merciful love.
  • That brings us to the second message God seeks to give us today to guide our Lenten pilgrimage, which is given in the Psalm. We prayed, “Be Merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned!” Lent is not fundamentally about our ascetical disciplines but about God’s mercy. We turn with confidence to God saying, “Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness. In the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense. … A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me. Give me once again the joy of your salvation and sustain in me a spirit that wills what you will.” On this journey of receiving God’s mercy and then becoming as merciful toward others as God is toward us, Mary accompanies us to help us to trust above all in God’s mercy. In her famous Magnificat that flowed from her soul and rejoicing Spirit, she praised God for having “mercy in every generation for those who fear him” and how he “remembered his mercy” always to the house of Israel, to Abraham and to his children forever. During Lent we course need to say and mean, “For we have sinned!,” to call to mind that we have greatly said not to God by our own “grievous fault,” but that’s not the most important thing. The most important thing is the greatness of God’s mercy, which so overwhelms the depth of any human misery. She helps us to ponder that she is our Mother of Mercy, our life, our sweetness and hope.
  • That leads to the third message found in the epistle. It’s not enough for us to recognize we need God’s mercy and cry out for it. We need to come to get it. St. Paul implores us as an ambassador of Christ, “Be reconciled to God,” and not to procrastinate, reminding us that now, today, is the acceptable time and the day of salvation. Now the offer of a brand new start has been given. Like St. Paul, Mary is always appealing and acting as an ambassador, bringing God’s message of mercy and asking us to become heralds of this gift as well. She identified herself to St. Juan Diego in 1531 in Guadalupe as the Mother of Mercy. She came to Lourdes and asked St. Bernadette to pray for the conversion of sinners. She asked the three shepherd children in Fatima to pray with her for the conversion of sinners and asked everyone to consecrate themselves to her Immaculate Heart rather than continued with hardened hearts. She’s echoing St. Paul’s appeal and saying to us, here, in the most famous Church dedicated to her, “Be reconciled to God!” “Take advantage of my son’s offer!” The Lenten pilgrimage must involve frequent stops in the Sacrament of Penance, otherwise it’s not really a Christian pilgrimage.
  • The fourth lesson is how to leave out this change of heart, this rending and returning, this dwelling in God’s mercy, this seizing the acceptable time and day of salvation. It’s daily through the practices Jesus describes in today’s Gospel of prayer, fasting and obedience, which seeks to recalibrate respectively our relationship with God, ourselves and others.
  • The first Lenten practice is prayer. Jesus says, “When you pray…,” which obviously shows the expectation that we will be praying along the journey. Mary is the the paragon of prayer and teacher of prayer. She shows us personal prayer in the Annunciation, in her Magnificat, and at Calvary. She shows us intercessory prayer at Cana. She shows us how to pray the Stations, as she accompanied her Son with a contemplative heart all along the journey. She shows us the Prayer of the Mass, as she received within herself from the hands of St. John the same Jesus in Holy Communion that she had received in her womb by the power of the Holy Spirit. She wants to help us advance on the pilgrimage of prayer.
  • The second practice is fasting. Jesus says, “When you fast….” The purpose of fasting is to learn how to hunger for what God hungers. Mary does. In her Magnificat, she asserted that God ‘fills the hungry with good things.” She was filled with good things because she hungered, and she teaches us how to open ourselves up to those good things by our hunger. Jesus had said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for holiness,” and she hungered for this sanctity with all her being, to be right with God. She wants us to have that same beatitude! When we fast, we become much more attentive to others’ needs and that’s what she shows us in Cana. She recognized when others had run out because she thought more about what they’d need than getting her own wine glass full. She wants to help us share that same hunger.
  • The third practice is almsgiving. Jesus says, “When you give alms…” Jesus wants to help us to learn how to love others as he loved us, holding nothing back. In this, Mary is again exemplary, giving her entire self, her entire life to God and then for us and our salvation.  She continues to giver herself, her prayers, her intercession. The Christian pilgrimage of Lent is the pilgrimage of a Good Samaritan crossing the road to care for others.
  • We finish with what we’re about to receive, ashes. There are two sayings that a priest can say as he imposes the ashes. The first is “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” This is a saying that refers to the Body but we need to remember at the same time that we’re more than dust. God breathed into us a soul. And Mary shows us how to live in such a way that that soul magnifies the Lord. The second phrase is “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” Repent means to turn around our mind to think with the Lord and no one thinks in greater harmony with God’s plans than Mary. Know one believes more firmly than she. Mary is praying for us to receive the ashes well, so that we may truly embrace the way of penance and faith, journeying with her along the path of the Christian life following and loving God with our whole heart, magnifying his mercy, seizing the gift of time, and coming to that place that Christ won for us by his prayer, fasting and almsgiving, where Mary now rejoices in the eternal Easter.

The readings for today’s Mass were:

Reading 1 Jl 2:12-18

Even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.
For gracious and merciful is he,
slow to anger, rich in kindness,
and relenting in punishment.
Perhaps he will again relent
and leave behind him a blessing,
Offerings and libations
for the LORD, your God.Blow the trumpet in Zion!
proclaim a fast,
call an assembly;
Gather the people,
notify the congregation;
Assemble the elders,
gather the children
and the infants at the breast;
Let the bridegroom quit his room
and the bride her chamber.
Between the porch and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep,
And say, “Spare, O LORD, your people,
and make not your heritage a reproach,
with the nations ruling over them!
Why should they say among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?’”Then the LORD was stirred to concern for his land
and took pity on his people.

Responsorial Psalm Ps 51:3-4, 5-6ab, 12-13, 14 and 17

R. (see 3a) Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
and of my sin cleanse me.
R. Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
For I acknowledge my offense,
and my sin is before me always:
“Against you only have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight.”
R. Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
A clean heart create for me, O God,
and a steadfast spirit renew within me.
Cast me not out from your presence,
and your Holy Spirit take not from me.
R. Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
Give me back the joy of your salvation,
and a willing spirit sustain in me.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
R. Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.

Reading 2 2 Cor 5:20—6:2

Brothers and sisters:
We are ambassadors for Christ,
as if God were appealing through us.
We implore you on behalf of Christ,
be reconciled to God.
For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin,
so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.Working together, then,
we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.
For he says:In an acceptable time I heard you,
and on the day of salvation I helped you.
Behold, now is a very acceptable time;
behold, now is the day of salvation.

Verse Before the Gospel See Ps 95:8

If today you hear his voice,
harden not your hearts.

Gospel Mt 6:1-6, 16-18

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Take care not to perform righteous deeds
in order that people may see them;
otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.
When you give alms,
do not blow a trumpet before you,
as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets
to win the praise of others.
Amen, I say to you,
they have received their reward.
But when you give alms,
do not let your left hand know what your right is doing,
so that your almsgiving may be secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

“When you pray,
do not be like the hypocrites,
who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners
so that others may see them.
Amen, I say to you,
they have received their reward.
But when you pray, go to your inner room,
close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

“When you fast,
do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.
They neglect their appearance,
so that they may appear to others to be fasting.
Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.
But when you fast,
anoint your head and wash your face,
so that you may not appear to be fasting,
except to your Father who is hidden.
And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”