Homily for Ash Wednesday

February 25, 2009

St Agnes, Cincinnati

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

“Behold, now is a very acceptable time! Behold, now is the day of salvation!”

The period of Lent is such a rich time that there is really no one ‘right’ way to celebrate it.

It’s like a lovely diamond that reflects a variety of colors depending on the way you turn it. It suggests many different perspectives. We are free to choose which facet to focus on for our spiritual growth.

Obviously one approach would be to focus on penance. On repentance for our sin. When we do things like fasting and offering our goods for those in need, we are setting limits on our desires for things which are in themselves quite good and holy. It’s a way of reminding ourselves of the transitory nature of our lives in this world. We have not here a lasting city. One day not so long from now we will each have to let go of it in death whether we like it or not. Doing penance is a way of making ourselves more ready to hand our lives back to the Lord.

Another way is to use Lent as a time to concentrate on the mystery of Jesus’ offering of himself for our salvation. To focus on how great his love for us is. This might mean taking the readings of the weekdays in the season and walking the journey with Jesus from the day on which Luke tells us that his ministry is taking a radical turn and he is ‘setting his face like flint’ toward Jerusalem. He knows full well that he is going to confront the powers of evil. They will bring him down but he will pursue his Father’s mission to the end. And he will triumph.

A third way of celebrating the season is suggested by tonight’s readings. They invite us to an ever deeper appreciation of the kind of God who calls and blesses us. Joel gives us a form of creed that recurs again and again in the preaching of the great prophets. We stand in the presence of a God who invites us to cast off all fear. A God who is gracious. A God who is merciful. A God who is slow to anger. A God who is rich in kindness and relenting in punishment. A God who is ever ready to bless us. We can easily take days or weeks – or a lifetime – to concentrate on these different perspectives on the one great mystery of our God.

Each of these approaches is perfectly valid, offering rich grace. Each one of us might find one or other approach more appealing than the others. We are free to follow whichever one seems to offer the greatest fruit for each one of us at the particular place we find ourselves. What attracts one might not seem as engaging for someone else.

But no matter which approach we choose, tonight’s readings challenge us to hold three different points in our consciousness.

The first is that Lent is primarily about our hearts, not our ‘garments.’ Those are the external acts we may perform, only the means and not the end. Jesus reminds us that “not everyone who says Jesus ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom but only those who do the will of the Father.” He does indeed speak of things like fasting or giving alms for the poor or even setting aside special times for prayer. But Joel and all the prophets remind us down across the ages that the Lord’s concern is our conversion of heart. It involves interior work, asking the Lord to change us. Remember, the word we translate as ‘repentance’ really doesn’t mean in the first instance ‘doing penance’. It means changing our way of thinking. Changing our deepest attitudes. We are asking the Lord to bring us back – to the place where we first met God. One of the great images that recurs in the prophets is that of going back to the desert. To where we are alone with the Lord. To solitude. If we do nothing else this Lent, one thing we are invited to do is to step away from the superficial busy-ness and clutter that fill so much of our lives, in order to find our center once again. To become re-rooted, re-grounded. We need to review our priorities, to see how many of the things that occupy us – or pre-occupy us – are worth the investment we put into them.

But the readings then go on to remind us that our internal renewal is not meant for ourselves alone. It is not a matter of spiritual selfishness. We are called to take our renewed hearts and bring them into the assembly. Our personal prayer for conversion is meant to prepare us to enter more fully into the communion of faith. Joel calls the whole people to gather. And Paul tells us why we are to gather: to be ambassadors of reconciliation. Our personal prayer brings us to a deeper appreciation of the fact that God reached out to reconcile us to God’s own self, and because we have been blessed we are challenged to continue that work of bringing the fragments of our world together. There are barriers to be torn down and bridges to be re-built. We may have old hurts to let go of; things we have done for which we need to ask forgiveness. Family members or friends from whom we have become alienated and need to ask for a chance to take up a common journey again.

We can’t do the hard work of reconciliation all by ourselves. We need to know that we are supported by the prayer of our fellow believers. When we come to liturgy we find ourselves surrounded by sisters and brothers working at it as we are. Weak and faltering but getting up again. Leaning on one another, drawing strength from the witness of the holy people around us.

And finally it’s all about the present. Now. The reading from Joel begins with the words ‘even now.’ Paul tells us that now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation. Lent is not about brooding over our sins and failures from the past, and it’s not about telling ourselves about the great new things we are going to do tomorrow. It’s about coming to a deeper contact with a God who offers a blessing now.

When Joel refers to ‘even now’ he’s speaking of a devastating plague of locusts that had come across the land. We may not have personally experienced that kind of plague but we’ve all seen pictures of how locusts or fire ants make their fierce way, destroying everything in their path. Joel describes them as an army, unrelenting, slipping through even the tiniest crack, laying waste fields and crops so that there is no pasture for cattle or sheep, no food left for the people.

And it is in the face of that ‘now’ that he proclaims a gracious and merciful God holding out a blessing for the people. The message of God is that today I am gracious, today I am a God of mercy, today I hold no anger toward you.

Our ‘now’ can seem quite bleak. People are losing their jobs by the thousands; they and others are losing their homes; the value of pensions vanishes before our eyes. And each of us has our own personal ‘now,’ with darkness that perhaps our closest friend or relative may not appreciate.

And in the face of our ‘now’ the same God proclaims: “Today I am rich in kindness; today I hold out a blessing for you.” Today, even in the face of our forms of death the Lord promises new life in store for us – if we ask and allow the Lord to show us how to see it with the heart and the mind and the eyes of Jesus. What we face now he faced in his hour. All to present us with a blessing: the healing of our broken world.