Homily for Ash Wednesday

February 6, 2008

St.Martin dePorres, Cincinnati

(Based of Joel 2:12-18; 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18)

Once again our church invites us into a special time of preparation for the great feast of Easter. We begin the period we call “Lent.”

It’s interesting to discover that in most of the other Western languages the word for this period takes the form of ‘forty’ (Quaresima, etc.). They are drawing our attention, obviously, to the forty years of the wandering of the Israelites with Moses in the desert, as well as the forty days of Jesus’ fasting and temptation in the desert.

Our word “Lent” originally meant “spring” – the time of budding new life, when seeds sown long before begin to sprout. It can help to remind us that Lent by itself is meaningless: like spring it is a time of preparation. And not just preparation for the blossoming time of summer but preparation for new life: the new outpouring of divine life on the Lord’s people with the resurrection of Jesus.

We are to think of this time, not as ‘first comes Lent, and then comes Easter.’ But rather as ‘Lent integrally linked to Easter. You can’t understand or appreciate Lent unless you see it from the perspective of Easter.

So what’s it all about?

From our childhood most of us were catechized to associate Lent with giving things up, with doing individual acts of penance or special devotion. For kids it was things like ‘giving up’ candy or TV; for adults it might involve a resolution to read Scripture daily or to go out of our way to visit someone in need.

And of course there’s nothing wrong with practices like that. As long as those external actions are signs of our desire for a genuine change of heart, for deeper conversion. Jesus, in today’s gospel and throughout his whole ministry, warned again and again against external practices performed for their own sake or to impress others. He warned against those who say “Lord, Lord” but don’t follow through on what commitment to the Lord calls for.

But beyond those individual acts I think that the readings could be giving Lent a different twist. They could set us on a more challenging path.

In the time of the prophet Joel the land of Israel was experiencing a dreadful plague of locusts, which had devastated the whole land. Let’s listen to some of his description:

What the cutter left, the locust swarm has eaten; what the locust swarm left, the grasshopper has eaten. . . The juice of the grape will be withheld from your mouths.. . . They have laid waste my vine, and blighted my fig tree; stripped it, sheared off its bark; its branches are made white. . . . the field is ravaged, the grapes have failed, the oil languishes.. Be appalled, you vine-dressers! Over the wheat and the barley, because the harvest of the field has perished. . . . the pomegranate, the data palm also, and the apple, all the trees of the field are dried up.

And he concludes with a brutal line: “Yes, joy has withered away from among humankind.”

It’s a plague that has affected the people as a whole, as a single community. And so, what does the Lord tell the prophet to do? Gather the whole community! Call an assembly (isn’t that the meaning of the word ‘church?’ The assembly of the Lord). And assembly of everyone. We are all suffering so we all have to rend our hearts — together. The elders and the youth and the bride and groom, and the priests.

And then amazingly, it is in that painful context that the great proclamation of the nature of our God is once again given. It is a piece of poetry that was repeated often in the Old Testament. Our God is

            gracious and merciful,

            slow to anger,

            rich in kindness,

            and relenting in punishment.

It’s a proclamation we can never hear too often. This time of plague — and our present season of Lent — is not a time of gloom, it should be a time of consolation!

If we ask for a conversion of heart. As a people.

Maybe what we are being called to in this particular Lent is to reflect on our commitment to our communities, not just to our personal spiritual practices, our individual failings and guilt. We each belong to several communities: the community of a marriage; the broader community of a family; our civic community and our social communities.

It’s all about our responsibility for relationships.

We each have been given gifts to bring to enrich a common life. Do we bring them to the common good, do we genuinely participate? Or do we simply come and go as consumers, with little or no sense that we belong to each other?

In the 2nd Letter to the Christian as Corinth Paul reminds them — and us — that in Christ we have been reconciled to the Father. And as a result we are called to take up and advance that same ministry, to carry forward Jesus’ work of reconciliation.

Reconciliation is no easy task, it’s hard work. It requires us to tear down barriers that divide us from one another; to build bridges instead.

Just consider:

We are all members of a church that has been deeply wounded by the tragedies of recent years. Our church has lost all credibility in the eyes of the world. As Joel put it in his day, “Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” And that credibility will only be re-built piece by piece by the acts of each one of us as members of that one body.

We live in a city that is wracked and torn apart by hostility and violence. And each of us is called to the process of participating in the difficult task of restoring trust among fellow citizens.

We live in a nation that is scorned and mocked by the rest of the international family of nations because of our arrogance; our attitude of ‘our way or the highway’; our refusal to work alongside of other nations as peers in the creation of civilization.

Each of us is called this Lent to examine our attitudes toward the challenge of creating human community. We are called to bring to light the drive to exclusion of others which bedevils each and every one of us. We must ask ourselves: whom do I shut out or refuse to listen to? Whose experience do I deny or fail to respect because it might make me confront attitudes I would rather not see in myself? Where can I build up the human family? When am I called to speak out in the public arena against injustice? To say “Enough! This has to stop!”

It has been said, “As long as anyone is not free, I am not free.” How can I contribute to the freedom in our community — the freedom of my spouse or my children, the freedom of my neighbor — by celebrating the gifts of those who tend to be overlooked or not valued or not taken seriously, with the respect that they deserve as human persons? Children, teenagers, the elderly cast aside by society? How can we strengthen and support our kids os that they have the strength to resist the bullying that is an epidemic in our schools?

You and I have been given the precious gift of knowing a God who is all grace and mercy. We have been entrusted with Jesus’ mission of reconciliation. Let’s pray this Lent for the courage to turn our hearts to the difficult deeds of justice and peace in all our communities.