Homily for Ash Wednesday

February 17, 2010

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

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

So, another year. Another Lent.

You and I, no matter our ages, have experienced s many Lents, this Lent could become just one more routine. Same ole, same ole. (A woman recently told me that when she goes to confession, she just says to the priest, “S.O.S”. – same old you-know-what.)

Is it possible to see things a little differently and perhaps be nudged to some significant change in our approach to Lent this year?

Actually, the readings suggest an approach that could open up some new avenue of exploration.

The most prominent word in the readings is – Now!

For Joel ‘now’ meant the experience of a devastating plague of locusts that was destroying all the plants in the land and producing famine. For Paul in the letter to the Corinthians ‘now’ was an offer of reconciliation and healing. For Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel ‘now’ is an opportunity to go deeper, to get behind our performance of religious practices – prayer and almsgiving and fasting – to examine our real motivation and commitment, to look into our hearts.

One thing that is clear about ‘now’ is that it is not yesterday; it’s not last week or last year. Or the past in general. It’s different.

As we begin this Lent the first thing we need to do is not to go into action but to stop and be quiet and name for ourselves our ‘now.’ Where are you? Where am I? Right now. What are we experiencing? What are we going through? What is our ‘now’ saying to us?

For each of us that ‘now’ will be different.

It isn’t easy to confront our now, it takes work and courage to get to it and name and claim it, because it always contains things that we’d like to avoid. And even if right now things are going pretty well and we might be up-beat, our ‘now’ isn’t just a matter of our present mood. It includes what others whom we love and are concerned about are experiencing, what our whole world is experiencing. We are all related, connected. If we pretend that “I’m OK, too bad about you” we’re cutting ourselves off from part of ourselves, we’re running away from our ‘now.’.

No matter who we are, the one thing we can be sure of about our now is that we – as individuals and as communities – are broken.

We’re not whole. There are tears and holes in the fabric of our lives. Things don’t hang together. We hunger and long for integration of the fragments of our existence. There are gaps. Some are intellectual: things we can’t put together, questions we don’t know how to understand; issues that confuse us and leave us conflicted. Some are emotional: moods and feelings and reactions whose meaning we can’t pin down. Some are spiritual: disconnects about God and where we stand. Some are relational: ruptures separating us from those we love; misunderstandings we are unable to resolve and just have to live with, painfully.

Some of our brokennesses we all share, some are unique to each of us personally. But in any case we are all called to name them, to acknowledge and claim them and touch them, because they are real. And our God desires us to come as we are and not cloaked in some kind of religious persona.

But tonight’s readings do not leave us helpless before the task. They call us to another aspect of ‘now’. That we belong to a reality beyond our limitations. We are called to realize that we can’t confront, much less bridge, the gaps of our brokenness alone. We can’t do it alone, but we have a community to support us. We are called, as the people of Joel’s time, to assemble. To gather – that’s what ‘church’ is all about: coming together – to lean on each other and find resources we don’t have in isolation.

We are called to return. Return to what?

To the word of the Lord. To the promise.

Can we really grasp what that word proclaims to us? That our God is gracious, and a god of mercy? That our God is slow to anger and quick to forgive? We read the message tonight in the prophecy of Joel, but he is only passing along, one more time, the great theme that runs through all the Scriptures.

Can we really grasp that what our God holds out for us is salvation, and holiness, and wholeness? Healing of our brokenness and mending of the rips in our lives? That what Jesus promises is that we can know the same incredible joy he experiences from total intimacy with the One he called ‘Father’? “That my joy may be inyou,and your joy may be complete”?

That is the promise of this Lent, the Lent of now. These gifts are available to us now, in this present moment. They are offered to us as we are, and not in some distant future.

Well, then, what are we called to do to enter into that promise?

The biblical word is to “confess.” The word might lead to a sacramental confession but it goes to something broader and deeper. To ‘confess’ is to name, to claim, to allow ourselves to stand in the presence of and confront two realities.

The reality of our brokenness, the reality that we can’t become whole on our own, that we can’t do it by our own power.

And the reality that we are always in the presence of, and held by, a gracious and generous and magnanimous God, a God whose love knows no limits. A God who is not put off by our brokenness. Not ashamed of our limitations and failures. A God who has no regrets about offering divine life to and for us. A God who positively delights in being with the children of this world.

A God who gave his Son, and a Son who poured out his own life that we might share in the wholeness of divine life forever.


♬ “For God so loved the world,

that he gave his only-begotten Son,

that whosoever believeth on him

shall not perish – shall not perish! –

But they shall have,

they shall have,

everlasting life.”