Homily for Ash Wednesday

February 21, 2007

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

What will this Lent mean? For you? For me? It doesn’t have to be a single model. There is a rich menu of possibilities open to us.

There is the model that a lot of us learned when we were school children. Remember? A lot of emphasis was placed on giving things up. We were told to think about the things we most liked and pick out one to give up as a way of expressing our love for God. Of course candy always ranked right up there at the top!

But I recall a certain irony about it. In the parochial schools in Philadelphia the Sisters made sure we’d remember not to eat candy–by not selling any in the classroom as they were accustomed to do for the rest of the school year. Instead a fellow came around selling those big soft Philadelphia pretzels. The kind you buy at the ballpark. We loved it!

There’s nothing wrong with fasting as a Lenten practice, of course. (Actually, given the epidemic of obesity among our children and grownups, we might need to do a little of it just to take care of our health,

St. Paul tells us that when he was c child he did the things of a child but when he became an adult he had to work at a different kind of spirituality. So what might it mean to celebrate Lent with the mind of an adult?

One thing we can be sure of. From all the readings of tonight’s liturgy it’s clear that, whatever external actions we choose, the external forms are not where it’s at. In the Gospel Jesus reminds us that we can fast, we can give alms, we can even pray but if we do them for the wrong motives they profit us little. The prophet Joel has the Lord telling us that he’s not interested in us rending our garments, it’s the tearing of our hearts that matters. And the Psalmist cries out to the Lord “create for me a clean heart!”

It’s all about interior conversion. Transformation of our attitudes.

And one way of pursuing that provides another possible focus for our Lenten prayer. We can focus on reconciliation. The church encourages us to take the occasion of Lent to receive the sacrament of reconciliation. And surely that can be an important step in preparation for Easter.

But you know, there can be a trap there, too. When we prepare for reconciliation, if we’re not careful we can get all focused on ourselves. I’m so unworthy! I’m such a sinner! It can be one of the seductive traps in the spiritual life, to get everything focused on me, me, me. If we pursue reconciliation with our focus on the Lord’s forgiveness, on God’s fidelity to his promise, that’s one thing; if it’s all convoluted concentration of our guilt, that’s something else.

There is still another possible focus we might concentrate on. I’m always sad that most of us wind up missing the rich scriptural readings that occur in the weekdays of Lent, because they frequently provide real flesh for the readings we may hear just on Sundays. For example, listen to this reading that will be coming up this Friday (it’s from Isaiah):

Is this the manner of fasting I wish,

      of keeping a day of penance:

That a man bow his head like a reed,

      and lie in sackcloth and ashes?

Do you call this a fast,

      a day acceptable to the Lord?

This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:

      releasing those bound unjustly,

      untying the thongs of the yoke;

Setting free the oppressed,

      breaking every yoke;

Sharing your bread with the hungry,

      sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;

Clothing the naked when you see them,

      and not turning your back on your own.

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,

      and your wound shall quickly be healed;

Your vindication shall go before you,

      and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. (58:5-8)


So Lent might be a time for reflecting on injustice in our world and making a renewed commitment to actions that can change what’s wrong, what oppresses our sisters and brothers. It could take the form of serious consideration on what we’re doing in Iraq.

These are all good options. In one way or another they are all about taking on the mind and heart of Jesus. In some way emptying ourselves and our ego, focusing on what God’s kingdom is all about and how our lives contribute to or diminish its power.

I’d like to suggest another route. It builds on one of the most profound images that runs all through the scriptures: the image of a God who has married his people, his bride.

You know, there are times in a marriage when the couple comes to realize that things aren’t exactly the way they should be. Something has been lost. A couple may decide they need to step back and take stock. Perhaps they decide to get away for a few days, to put aside all the distractions and work at finding the center of their marriage again. Well, the prophet Hosea gives us the rich image of God doing exactly that: taking his bride out to desert to rediscover their love, to renew and make fresh again their covenant of love. Maybe that could be the route we take. Not solving problems, not focused on our sinfulness but deepening a rich source of life that is always there but has slipped from our attention.

With all these options available, here’s one more. It’s potentially very profound. What would it be if we each decided to do something very simple and just concentrate, not on ourselves but on the Lord’s faithfulness. What if we took odd moments in our day simply to be grateful for the Lord’s continuing offer of reconciliation in our lives?

I want to tell you a good story. Some of you may know Fr. Al Bischoff. He’s a Jesuit colleague of mine, a chaplain over on the Xavier campus. You have to imagine an 80-year-old fellow, a big lovable bear over 6 feet. On vacation a couple of weeks ago he told us what had happened to him. He had given a weekend retreat in a parish. On Monday he got a phone call from a woman he didn’t know. She began by saying, “Are you the priest that spoke at church this weekend — the Jesuit?” (With that question he knew he was in trouble.) He said yes, he was. And she asked, with some strong energy, “Did you say that when we die we fall into the arms of Jesus and he takes us to his Father and we learn how much we have been loved all the days of our lives?” Al said he might not have used exactly those words but that is what he believes. And the woman said, “But what about purgatory?” Al said, “Well, I think purgatory is that painful blow to the chest that comes when we realize how God loved us in the face of our refusal (he gestured by ‘punching’ himself).” After a second she said, “Well, but how long does that last?”

If we pay serious attention to the constant practice of simple praise and thanksgiving to the Lord, I can assure you there will be sufficient moments of penance involved. Building our spiritual lives on gratitude rather than guilt will provide the strongest impulse to act for the building of the kingdom.

So there can be lots of different ways of entering into the Lenten journey. The worth of any can be measured very simply: is it leading us ever deeper into the mystery of Jesus’ dying—and so to sharing in his resurrection? Our gracious God gives us the freedom as adults to make our personal choice. Let’s pray over what that will be for each of us.