Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Ash Wednesday 2004
February 25, 2004
Joel 2:12-18; 2Cor5:20-6:2; Mt6:1-6,16-18
1) Each of you in a few minutes will come up to receive ashes on your forehead and an instruction. That instruction can take one of two forms, each of which helps to orient us about the whole point of the Lenten season we begin today.
2) The first is “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return!” This recalls man’s beginning, his creation, from the dust of the earth, when “God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; thus man became a living being” (Gen 2:7). Man is, in other words, more than dust, but also has a soul breathed into him by God. Lent is a privileged occasion for us to ask ourselves and ask God directly how our soul is doing, how have we been responding to the gift of life God has given us. But ashes also are a clear reminder to us of the fact that each of us will die and our bodies will for a time return to the dust from which we came. Lent is the time for us to ask if we would be truly ready to meet the Lord.
3) This leads to the second form by which the one imposing ashes instructs the recipient: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” This is a translation of Jesus’ first homily at the beginning of his public ministry, when Jesus in Galilee said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the good news” (Mk 1:15). Jesus says the same thing to each of us when we come to receive ashes. He reminds us that in him time has come to its culmination and the kingdom is here, which requires us to change and to believe. Lent is that time when all of us recall our need to change and to deepen our faith and practice of it.
4) Jesus himself gives us in today’s Gospel the three ways the Church has traditionally proposed for us to help us turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel.
a) The first is prayer — “Go … pray to your Father.” When we pray, we turn our attention to God and turn away from what keeps us from God. We listen to the Good News he whispers to us in mental prayer or through meditation on the Bible or in the Rosary. We receive his strength to turn away from the temptations we encounter and embrace ever more the life he calls us to. We ultimately recall that we are made for God, for holiness, for heaven. Therefore, Jesus, through the Church he founded, calls each of us to increase the quality and the quantity of our prayer, so that we may put his Lenten command into practice. We can do that by coming to daily Mass, where he teaches us live and then feeds us with his flesh and blood. We can do that by coming on Fridays to the Stations of the Cross, in which the Lord strengthens us to pick up our daily Crosses and follow him. And I would urge adults to do it this Lent by going to the cinema seeing Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ, which is an extended meditation on the Sacred Triduum and a poignant portrayal of how much suffering the Lord bore for us and our salvation and of the love that made even that much suffering bearable.
b) The second way is fasting — “When you fast….” Fasting, as all Catholics are called to do today by norm and as each of us is called to do in a way we determine throughout Lent, helps us to recall that our body of dust and its desires are not the most important thing. “Man does not live on bread alone,” Jesus will say to us on Sunday, “but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4). Sometimes we can live a life in which we just try to satisfy our hungers and desires, to go from one pleasure to another. We can shy away from the tougher parts of the living our faith. Fasting allows us to subordinate our bodily desires and needs to those of our soul. It allows us to control our desires rather than let them control us. That is why oftentimes priests will encourage those who are trying to overcome addicitions — to alcohol, to drugs, to sex — to fast, because if they can learn how to control a desire that is necessary for survival (eating), then they can also more easily grow to control desires for things that they don’t really need to survive, like drugs, sex or booze. The more we learn to say no to our desires, the easier it is to say yes to God and to more important things. This is the second thing Jesus calls us to do during Lent.
c) The third is to give alms — “When you give alms…” Very often the sins we commit flow from selfishness or egocentrism, putting ourselves first. That is why the Lord commands us to give alms, which requires us to look toward others’ needs, not just our own, to love others in deeds and not just wish them well, to take some responsibility for the welfare of others, for as often as we fail to do something for them, we fail to do it to Christ “(Mt 25:31ff). Jesus, who gave everything down to his last drop of blood, tells us to follow him, by giving of ourselves, our time, our money generously. Our desire to do so is an indication of how deeply we believe in the Gospel and how detached we are from sin. Moreover, if we are conscious that one day our body will return to dust and that we can take none of our money and possession into the next life — only our deeds of love — we will start to store up a treasure for ourselves in heaven, where God will reward us.
5) Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the ways Jesus puts forward for us to turn away from sin and grasp onto his saving Gospel. These means, and our conversion, are things that should be occurring not just 40 days, but 365 days a year, but each of us knows that at times we can take our faith and the obligations that flow from it less seriously than we ought to. These blessed 40 days are a time for true renewal, for being born again in our faith, and we are called not to take it for granted. St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians in our second reading, “We appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.” That grace is a grace of conversion. As an ambassador for Christ, as the mouthpiece of God, he said to them, “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” What he said to the Corinthians on behalf of God, I, on behalf of the same God say to you: Don’t waste this grace! Take advantage of this time to cut whatever sins keep you from a fervent life of love with God and embrace the Gospel. As St. Paul said, so I repeat: “Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation!” Christ, the Lord, out of love, offers each of us this time of conversion, this day of salvation. May each of us, conscious of the fact that we are dust and unto dust shall return, put into practice the Lord’s first public words which he repeats intimately and personally to each of us as we receive these ashes, “The time is fulfilled. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel!”