Ash Wednesday – 2016
Joel.2: 12-18; 2Cor.5: 20- 6:2; Mtt.6:1-6, 16-18
The Church was packed with the faithful eager to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday. Pat, Father Kelly’s janitor, offered to help. “OK,” said Father, “now these are the words you say: ‘Remember, man, you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”
Pat prepared to start at the opposite end of the communion rail. (This was in the old days, as you can realize.) But Pat came hurrying over to Father: “Father, what are those words again?” Father told him, Pat went back to his station, but in a moment he was back, asking for the words, which Father repeated.
When Pat came back the third time Father exploded: “You are a dummy and you’ll always be a dummy.” Pat didn’t come back but when the padre and the janitor came close to each other at the middle the priest was dumbfounded to hear the words Pat was saying: “You are a dummy and you’ll always be a dummy.”
Ash Wednesday (dies cinerum), is the Church’s “Day of Atonement.” Its very name comes from the Jewish practice of doing penance wearing “sackcloth and ashes.” The Old Testament tells us how the people of Nineveh, King and Queen fasted wearing sackcloth and ashes.
In the early Church, Christians who had committed serious sins were instructed to do public penance wearing sackcloth and ashes. The Church instructs us to observe Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as days of full fast and abstinence.
Fasting is prescribed to reinforce our penitential prayer during the Lenten season. The prophet Joel in the first reading insists that we should experience a complete conversion of heart, and not simply regret for our sins. Saint Paul, in the second reading, advises us “to become reconciled to God.”
Today’s Gospel instructs us to assimilate the true spirit of fasting and prayer. We also need to know the significance of the blessing of the ashes and the significance of the day.
The priest, dipping his thumb into ashes (collected from burnt palms of the previous Palm Sunday), marks the forehead of each with the sign of the cross, saying the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return” or “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”
By marking the sign of the cross with ashes on the foreheads of her children, the Church gives us three things that are: a firm conviction, a strong warning, and a loving invitation:
1- a firm conviction that we are mortal beings, our bodies will become dust when buried and ashes if cremated, and our life-span is very brief and unpredictable.
2- a strong warning that we will be eternally punished if we do not repent of our sins, become reconciled with God, asking His pardon and forgiveness, and do penance.
3- a loving invitation to realize and acknowledge our sinful condition and return to our loving and forgiving God with true repentance and a renewal of our life as the prodigal son did.
As we receive the ashes on our foreheads, we remember the purpose of Lent: it is an exercise in cleansing and holy desire, helped by some penitential practices: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. We begin this season by receiving ashes on our foreheads, as a cross.
Lent lasts forty days in imitation of the time Jesus spent in the desert before starting his public ministry. What is the purpose of Lent? It is to prepare us for a more effective involvement in our vocation as Christians.
The whole of Christian life, St Augustine said, “is an exercise of holy desire.” He does not ask that we deny our normal, human desires, but we should raise and purify them. Our desires are too small if we look for fulfilment only in the transient satisfactions of this world, but God wants us to have so much more, no less than his very Self.
During Lent we seek to tune in to higher desires, our deep-down longing for God. In today’s Gospel Jesus shows the way: prayer, fasting and alms-giving, the classic Lenten practices. Of these, prayer has first place.
Our eternity will be an eternal relationship with the living God in the Communion of Saints. That relationship begins in this life, or it does not begin at all. Our main prayer is by sharing in the Mass, the loving sacrifice of Christ which opens heaven to us. Prayer is the foundation of our friendship with God, and it opens the way to eternal life.
Fasting is somewhat more tricky for us today. While we should certainly enjoy food and the conviviality that often accompanies a good meal, we should also find a place for fasting. The goal of Lenten fasting is not to have a sleek body one can be proud of.
All of us resonate in some way to the ideal of alms-giving. Lent is good time to rid ourselves of some of the clutter in our life. With a bit more vision, could we perhaps do more to serve the needy, not so that people will consider us generous, but to imitate God’s generosity to us.
Augustine sees cleansing as a necessary condition for the exercise of holy desire: “This will be effective only to the extent that we free ourselves from infatuation with this world. Like the example of filling an empty container.
God means to fill each of you with what is good; so cast out what is bad! If he wishes to fill you with honey and you are full of sour wine, where is the honey to go? The vessel must be emptied of its contents and then be cleansed.”
So let us empty ourselves in this lent and let us be filled with the blessings of God. Amen.