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Ash Wednesday
February 17, 2021

Watch this homily! (Begins at 29:45)

     Ash Wednesday is the launching pad for Lent and it is also a harbinger of the coming spring. And we’re ready for spring this year, aren’t we! The pandemic has made us more than ready for spring – for new life and hope – and so has the recent ‘Snowmageddon!’ We are tired of winter! We’re tired, too, of the winter of our spirits. We’re ready to be warmed by the sunshine of God’s love, to be watered by an outpouring of God’s grace. We’re ready for a fresh start – ready to bloom, to blossom, to grow into our truest and fullest and best selves.

      But growing comes at a price. It doesn’t come just by wishing it or even by willing it. Growing involves dying. That’s true for seeds that are planted in the dark, cold earth before they can ever sprout into life, and it’s true for us, too. So, some dying, and Lent is the perfect time for that, the perfect time to let go of some of our tired and selfish patterns, for pushing the restart button so we can grow into something new and transformative, grow into the fullness of Christ who first made this forty-day journey himself, and who now invites us to make it with him.

     I began by saying that Ash Wednesday is the launching pad for Lent. And the ashes that give the day its name are important. And they are so very Catholic!  We Catholics like anything we can see, feel, or touch. We like holy water, we like holy oil; we like holy bread and the holy meal; we like candles and incense, kneeling and standing; we like palms and processions and beautiful music; we like rosaries, stained-glass windows and statues of saints. We like to touch, to feel, to hear, to actually see the workings of grace in our lives. That’s why the ashes of Ash Wednesday are so important!

     Those ashes not only remind us of who we are and awaken us to what God calls us to be, they also help us take stock of where we are on our journey of faith, and remind us that we do not make this journey alone: we make it in the company of a whole family of believers who, like us, stumble and struggle along the way, but who also, like us, find comfort and sure footing in the prayers and rituals of our faith.

     And for those of us for whom Ash Wednesday is one of the few times we set foot in church, well, there’s something here for us, too. Something more than ashes. There is also welcome, there is warmth and forgiveness - unconditional forgiveness - and there is also an invitation to reflect on our lives and, with God’s grace, maybe to re-connect more intentionally, more fully, with Jesus and with the practice of our faith.

     But the question arises: What about the remaining 40 days of Lent? What are we to do with those? Today’s readings gave us the answer. The Prophet Joel told us in the first reading that we are coming home to God, and that we are to do so with full and open hearts: “Return to me with your whole heart,” Joel says, “rend your hearts, not your garments.”  Lent is return-to-God-time, and who among us does not need to do that? And what does God say to us when we do return?  God warmly welcomes us and says to us, gently and lovingly, "Repent, and be faithful to the Gospel!" Repent. Return to me with all your heart! Turn your lives around! Turn them upside down and inside out, if necessary! Change! Be converted from the inside out, not just on the tops of your heads where the ashes will be sprinkled in just a few minutes!

     And how are we to do this turning around and returning? The Church has some wonderful ideas for us: three of them, to be exact, and each was highlighted in today's Gospel. They are Prayer, Almsgiving, and Fasting.

     PRAYER. It’s all about abandoning the self-sufficiency of our ego so we can acknowledge our need for God and God’s mercy. Prayer allows us to do that. Prayer quiets us down and makes room for God who finds it difficult to speak to us when we are always busy, preoccupied with self, our engines racing at full speed. Prayer makes it possible for us to hear what God is trying to say to us in the midst of the busy whirlwind of our lives. Prayer: public prayer like the Mass, and quiet, contemplative prayer in the quiet of our hearts and our homes.

     Second, ALMSGIVING. Pope Francis speaks about escaping the insanity of hoarding everything for ourselves in the illusory belief that we can secure a future that does not belong to us, and of how it also helps us to discover the joy of God’s plan for creation and for each of us. In letting go of things - including things like money - we find a new freedom from selfishness and at the same time we discover the face of God in the face of our needy sister or brother.

     And then, FASTING. We should think of our Lenten fasting as an opportunity to become aware of the forced fasting of others, a time to identify with the millions of our poor and hungry brothers and sisters throughout the world, so many of whom die each day because of hunger and malnutrition. Our fasting is very modest when compared with theirs. Fasting and almsgiving touch on two very fundamental human needs – the need for nourishment and the need for ownership. We who have so much, so very much, can afford to cater to those needs a little less so that others may have more.

     My friends in Christ, Ash Wednesday is the day for returning to the Lord with all our hearts. And Lent is the season for dying and rising: dying so we can grow and blossom like the little slivers of green that, even now, are poking through the earth with the promise of spring. Let the ashes speak of dying but let the remaining days of Lent speak of rising to new life, the life that Jesus is dying to share with each of us!

Father Michael G. Ryan





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