Thursday, March 2, 2017

Homily for Ash Wednesday

Homily for Ash Wednesday
Feb. 21, 2007
Joel 2: 12-18
2 Cor 5: 20—6: 2
Matt 6: 1-6, 16-18
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.

St. Paul advises us today, “Now is a very acceptable time; now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2).  A time acceptable for what?  A day to be saved from what?  The prophet Joel gives a partial answer:  “Rend your hearts…, and return to the Lord, your God” (2:13).  Then the prophet speaks of national ailments:  the Lord’s heritage is a reproach (2:17) and the Lord is stirred to concern for his land (2:18)—the national ailments being the consequences of the people’s hearts having become proud or hard or self-centered, separated from God.

Before we think of national ailments, tho, we have to examine our own hearts, our own lives.  Paul’s words, “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20), are addressed to us as individual sinners.  “Now is a very acceptable time.”  Now is a season of grace given to us by God, to be converted anew to him thru his Son Jesus Christ.

As you know, the catechumens of our parish and of the whole Church are in their final weeks of preparation for taking the plunge into the death and resurrection of Jesus.  I suppose some of them somewhere will literally plunge into the waters of Baptism, so fully symbolizing the life of grace they’ll enter—even if here, as in most parishes, we use the more timid but still graced sign of pouring the water over their heads.

But Lent is a season of preparation for us, as well.  All of us will renew our baptismal promises at the Easter Vigil or on Easter Sunday.  We will be renewing our commitment to Jesus Christ and to the conversion of our lives from sin to discipleship, from death to life.  The ashes that will mark our foreheads in a few minutes are the outward sign of our desire to be so committed.  If we are not willing to commit our lives to Jesus, then the ashes are just an empty show.

In today’s gospel, Jesus suggests to us 3 ways to do this prep work:  almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.  Those are 3 ways to work on our conversion; 3 ways to give God the room in our hearts to give them a good spring cleaning, make them over, make them new.

On the subject of our hearts, I want to share with you part of what a dear young friend of mine, named Paula, blogged yesterday:

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
—The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

I came across this quote recently and was struck by how it calls out our tendency to play the blame game: to point a fault-finding finger at others rather than at ourselves. But its insights go further, because it reminds us that there is both good and evil in every human heart and it challenges us to destroy—I like the definitiveness of that word choice—whatever evil is within us.

The season of Lent is an ideal time to acknowledge the good and the evil in my own heart. I want to identify what is good in me and then work to refine and enhance those virtues. I also want to pinpoint exactly what is corrupt and cruel in me and get rid of it completely.

Is this a spiritual exercise that can be wrapped up in forty days? I don’t think so! But, actually, that’s the point: by dedicating the Lenten period to a serious self-examination and a commitment to self- improvement I can use it to kickstart the building up of lifelong habits. And it’s all the more likely to succeed if I begin by taking small but specific, doable steps in the right direction.

So, I have singled out one virtue and one vice in me. Every day of Lent I will do two concrete actions: one which strengthens the virtue and one which weeds out the vice.

Building up life-long habits is precisely the topic of a chapter that I just read in the book that the parish offered as a Christmas gift to every family, Matthew Kelly’s Resisting Happiness.  Go back to ch. 21 and re-read that.  Or jump ahead and read it.

Paula continues her post by seeing a link between whatever she does and the total evil or total virtue in the world:  “each time I choose virtue I increase the good in our world and each time I choose vice I add to the evil in our world.”  She pledges, then, to remember how that evil or that good affects the world, and so affects the people she loves:  “every step I take towards virtue or towards vice affects your life in some way.”  So she pledges to remember those whom she loves when she’s tempted toward evil or is feeling slothful about doing virtue.

Paula might be suggesting a good Lenten program for us regarding our own hearts, our own evil and virtue, the people we love, the world we want to be a wee bit better for those we love—and our relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ, who loves us and saves us.

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