Returning to Our Father with Our Whole Heart, Ash Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Ash Wednesday
March 5, 2014
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 text guided the homily: 

The Christian difference

Over the last month, we’ve been focusing intensely on the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus indicates to us how we’re supposed to live. Throughout it he stresses that we’re supposed to be different from everyone else, that we’re supposed to be like him, that we’re supposed be holy, that we’re supposed to behave as true sons and daughters of God the Father. Today, to help us to begin Lent, the Church has us focus on the section of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus speaks to us about how we’re supposed to give alms differently than the rest, to pray differently than the rests and to fast differently than the rest. Insofar as these are the three great Lenten penitential practices geared to helping us reorder our relationship with God (prayer), with others (almsgiving) and with our own appetites, hungers and desires (fasting), we ought to listen with greater attentiveness to Jesus as he shows us not only how to do these right as Christians but how properly to reorder our entire life as we enter into this holy season of conversion.

Jesus summarizes the essential Christian difference of action by saying, “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them.” Many, he says, do good things in order to win the esteem and approval of others, so that others may think they’re good people. Jesus says that what is supposed to distinguish us is that we do them with purity of intention for God the Father, with his help, and as his beloved children, just like Jesus himself prayed, fasted and gave of himself for the Father’s glory and to fulfill the Father’s plans for our salvation.

Giving Alms as Christians

“When you give alms,” Jesus says,” do not blow a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others.” He was pointing to the fact that when the Jews gave alms in the temple and in their synagogues, there was a tuba-like twisted funnel in which they’re put their coins and it would roll down the spiral pipework into a locked box. There would be many people who would give in order to “make a lot of noise” as their gifts descended through the funnel, turning the heads of those who were at the temple at the time. Jesus said that we are supposed to give almost in a totally different way. “When you give alms,” he insisted, “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.” We are to give alms, in other words, in communion with the Father, for his pleasure and for his glory, so that others, receiving the alms, may thank him instead of us. God, after all, is the one who gave us the alms to give to others in the first place.

Praying as Christians

With regard to our prayer, Jesus says likewise that we’re supposed to pray differently than everyone else. “When you pray,” he declares, “do not be like the hypocrites who loved to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them.” The word “hypocrite” means “actor,” someone who’s pretending, someone who seems to be praying but really isn’t focused on God at all but in gaining the attention of others. Jesus tells us, rather, “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.” The word he uses for “inner room” refers to the “store room” that Jews would have in their houses. The outer doors were in general not locked and people could enter easily when they were not there. But they retained a “store room,” a locked closet inside where they would place all their valuables so that they couldn’t be taken. Jesus said that we should go to our inner room within us where we store our valuables, where we store our inheritance, and meet God the Father there. Prayer is supposed to be an intimate exchange of persons with God the Father and just like married couples don’t engage in their most intimate moments in the middle of the public square for everyone else to see, so when we pray we should do so in a way that maintains that great intimate communion with God. That’s why Jesus, immediately after telling us how we’re supposed to pray differently than all the rest, tells us — in a section that’s been excised from today’s reading — that we’re supposed to pray to our Father who knows what we need before we ask him in this way: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name.” Prayer is about seeking the hallowing of the Father’s name, desiring the Father’s kingdom, hungering to do the Father’s will, confident that he as a loving Father will give us each day our daily bread, as a merciful Father will forgive us as he calls us to forgive others, and as a protective Father will help us in temptation to avoid doing evil.

Fasting as Christians

And Jesus today describes how we’re supposed to fast differently, too.  “When you fast,” he says, “do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance so that they may appear to others to be fasting.” Their fasting, he said, was a show. To others they seemed to be intent on atoning for their sins — the principal purpose of fasting — but they were only adding to their sins by proudly faking their penitence out of vanity. Jesus said that we’re supposed to be fasting in a totally different manner. “When you fast,” he said, “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.” We’re supposed to be fasting in a way seen only to the Father, because it’s he before whom we need to atone, it’s he whom we must ask for forgiveness. As we see with Jesus’ fasting in the desert and the temptations that the evil one gave him at the end of that first Lent, our fasting is meant to help us to detach ourselves from stuffing our physical appetites and desires so that we might hunger for “every word that comes from the mouth of God.” When we fast, we do prayerful penance with our body for all the times that we’ve sought our pleasures over God’s will and with God’s help we gain a self-mastery so that we are able to hunger after what’s most important, God himself, his Word, his will, his kingdom, and his glory.

As we hear Jesus speak to us in the Sermon on the Mount, it’s key for us to grasp that Jesus takes it for granted here that we will be giving alms, praying and fasting. To be his disciple, all three need to be routine parts of our life, not just during the Lenten season but throughout the year. To be a Christian is to pray. To be a Christian is to fast. To be a Christian is to give generously to others of what God has given to us. If we haven’t been living these Christian realities throughout the year, Lent is a new beginning. But the Church reminds us of these words of Jesus at the beginning of Lent because many times when we’re praying, fasting and giving alms, we, like those in his day, are doing them externally, as mere duties, perhaps to impress others by our religious observance, or to receive some other human “reward,” rather than inwardly as something that restores and reorders our divine filiation, our loving communion as sons and daughters with heavenly Father, and seeks the reward of the Father himself. Jesus today focuses less on the action itself, which he presumes we’ll know we need to do, and far more on our motivation, to do each of them, in fact to do everything good we do, with the proper loving, filial heart.

The total conversion of our heart

This whole discussion of how we’re supposed to pray, fast and give alms brings us to the main point of Lent, which is the conversion of our hearts, our insides, our motivations, our aspirations, so that from the inside out, in all our actions, we might live as Christians ought, in the love of God the Father. Lent is the time when we relive the Parable of the Prodigal Son, when we come to our senses as to how we’ve treated God as if he were not a loving Father, wandered from his house, squandered the inheritance he has given us and make the journey home. It’s the time when God the Father runs out to meet us, to cleanse us, to restore us to our full dignity and to rejoice with us at our conversion.

That journey is what God himself summons us to do through the Prophet Joel in today’s first reading, “Return to me with your whole heart!” God loves us and he wants us back! But he doesn’t just want part of us to return. He wants us fully to return to him. He wants us to come to back to him with our all our heart, and with all our strength, and with all our mind and all our soul. He tells us through the prophet. “Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God.” The Jews, when they beheld serious sin, would always rend their garments, which meant to rip open the upper parts of their tunics and cloaks near their neck, which would be laced together like shoelaces. When they rent their garments, they broke the shoelaces in testimony that what they had observed was immoral. God tells us he doesn’t want us ripping open our clothes. He doesn’t want our repentance to be external. He wants us rip open our hearts, our whole hearts, “with fasting, weeping, and mourning,” three activities all associated with repentance, so that we can restore and rebuild those hearts to be the inner room where he can come in and enter into life changing, loving communion with us.

The conversion of the Father’s whole family

And this is something he wants to happen not just in each of us individually but communally, since as a loving Father he wants his whole family to come to him. That’s why he tells us through Joel, “Blow the trumpet in Zion!” to get others’ attention. “Proclaim a fast. Call an assembly. Gather the people. Notify the congregation. Assemble the seniors. Gather the children and infants at the breast.” He wants all his children, from the youngest to the oldest, to rend their hearts in conversion and fully come back to him. He even tells newlyweds to interrupt their honeymoon — “let the bridegroom quit his room and the bride her chamber” —  because this time of conversion, this grace of renewal, this summons to restored communion with God, is even more important than their communion with each other. God wants us to focus not only how our own ways have erred from his Covenant but he wants our help to convert our assemblies, our peoples, our congregations, our parishes, our neighborhoods, and our families from the youngest to the newly married to the oldest. What happened in Nineveh at the preaching of the Prophet Jonah, where everyone from the lowest to the highest and even the pets did penance, God wants to happen in all our communities. He wants all of us to rend our hearts so that we might all come back as beloved prodigals to his house for the feast. He wants all of us to recognize that we need to walk that journey of conversion, whether we’re like the son who ran away to the pigsties or the son who never ran away but who nevertheless never really grasped the loving heart of the Father or regarded others as our beloved siblings.

The heart transplant we need and that God wants to give

As God calls us to return to him with our whole heart, we also recognize that that’s not in our power. By our own strength we can’t get out the stain of sin. That’s why we cry out in today’s Responsorial Psalm, “A clean heart create for me, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” We need a heart transplant. Our heart has been hardened by sin, by pride, by envy, by anger, greed, by laziness, by lust and gluttony, and we need God to replace it with a heart of flesh (Ez 36:36), a pure heart that sees God (Mt 5:8), that is the abode of his love, and that seeks to love him in all we do.

The first step in that heart transplant is to recognize we’re sick, we need a doctor, and need to submit to surgery. That’s why we cried out together, from the youngest to the oldest, over and over again in the Psalm response, “Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.” That’s why we all wear ashes, which is a sign of our repentance, that we recognize we are dust and unto dust we shall return. At the same time, however, we recognize that we’re more than simply dust, but that at the beginning God breathed into the dust of the earth the breath of life (Gen 2:7). That’s the second step. We ask God spiritually to resuscitate us, to blow into us anew the breath of life just as someone would breathe into someone whose heart had stopped working in CPR. So we cry out, “Renew in me a steadfast … and willing spirit.” And we recall the day when God breathed into us his own divine life. We impose ashes on the forehead in the sign of the Cross precisely to remember the day of our baptism, when on our forehead the priest first traced that cruciform sign and claimed us for Christ. By having that Cross traced on our forehead in ashes, we remember the indelible seal of the sign of the Cross on the day of our baptism. The cross in ashes is an outward sign both that we haven’t been fully faithful to our baptism but that we seek to recover the innocence of our baptismal graces. The words that we will say at the imposition of ashes, “Repent and believe in the Gospel,” are the theme of this holy time, this blessed pilgrimage, of conversion, reconciliation and spiritual rebirth. These were Jesus’ first words to us as he began his public ministry and they help us every Lent to recognize that we’re sinners in need of God’s mercy and come to beg for that gift, so that we believe in the Gospel and return to God with our whole heart.

So Lent is this meeting between our ashes and God’s life-giving breath, our hardened heart and God the Father’s spiritual CPR. As we rend our hearts, as we pray, fast and give alms, as we mourn weep and seek to return to him with our whole heart, he comes out to meet us in our prayer, fasting and almsgiving, in our mourning and weeping, in that exodus of the heart from slavery into the freedom of the children of God. Lent is this restorative encounter, this unbelievably loving embrace of the Father with his lost, dying or even dead child that brings us to life again. The prophet Joel tells us that the one who awaits us is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, rich in kindness and relenting in punishment.” He tells us that when we come back to him, not only will he relent on any punishment our sins deserve but will “leave behind him a blessing.” He will turn even our sins into a blessing, converting our detritus into fertilizer for new spiritual growth. Far more than a series of actions on our part, Lent is a great gift on God’s part when not only he gives us the time to repent and believe in the Gospel but he gives us the graces we need so that we may do so thoroughly, wholeheartedly, individually and together with others.

The urgency of this loving encounter

Pope Francis in his general audience in St. Peter’s Square this morning reminded us that the call for us to repent and believe in the Gospel is to encounter God in the living Gospel of his merciful love. “Our conversion,” the Holy Father said, “is the conscious response to the stupendous mystery of the love of God. When we see this love that God has for us, we feel the desire to draw close to him. This is conversion. Lent must be lived as a time of conversion, or personal and communal renewal through drawing close to God and faithfully adhering to the Gospel.” Just as in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, when we start the road home to the Father’s house, we grasp that he has already long been awaiting our return and runs out to embrace us, to restore us to our divine filiation and to restore us as true brothers and sisters of each other. That’s the encounter God wants to have with us in the inner room of our prayer. That’s the embrace he wants to have with us as we hunger for what he wants to give. That’s the effects he wants to bring about in us as we feel moved to share his loving generosity with others by giving of ourselves and what we have in alms.

That’s what can happen in Lent. That’s what’s God wants to have happen in Lent. But whether it does or not depends on our response as free sons and daughters. God is calling us to return to him, he’s awaiting us with love, but he doesn’t force us home. We have to take him up on this loving offer. We have to act. And we have to act urgently, living this Lent as if it is the last and only Lent we’ll ever have. St. Paul reminds us of the grace we’ve been given but also the urgency with which we need to respond in today’s second reading. As an ambassador for Christ, an emissary, a spokesman for Jesus himself, he tells us, “We implore you on behalf of Christ. Be reconciled to God.” He begs us “not to receive the grace of God in vain,” not to waste this time of conversion, not to squander this great opening to encounter God in the depth of his merciful love. He urges us to repent and believe in the Gospel without delay, reminding us that “now” is the “acceptable time,” “now” — not tomorrow, not next week, not when I’m older, now — is the “day of salvation.”

Today, and the Lenten season of conversion that has begun today, is the time, through our prayer, fasting and almsgiving, through our weeping and mourning, through our profound repentance, to return to God with our whole heart, to be embraced by him in his love, to be restored to the graces of our baptism, and to grow ever more to believe, proclaim and live his saving Gospel!

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.

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.”