Preached at Holy Sepulcher Parish on February 18, 2015 on Ash Wednesday at the 5:00PM Liturgy of the Word Service
After Mass this morning a woman told me that a girl from the school was in the restroom attempting to make the cross on her forehead as big as the cross her classmate had on her forehead. “Your cross is so nice and big and mine is so little,” the girl said. So she decided that the best thing to do would be to use water to help make the cross bigger, but all she succeeded to do was to wash it off.
We love receiving ashes, don’t we? We’re proud to display them for all to see. As the cashier at Walmart said to me, “We’re being overrun by the Catholics today.” Ash Wednesday is one of the biggest days in the Church year. In fact in some parishes it will be busier today than it will be on Christmas or Easter. From my office downtown I can see the line to receive ashes at St. Mary of Mercy Parish and it stretches for blocks. Most of my coworkers, many of whom usually do not attend Mass, many of whom aren’t even Catholic (or even Christian for that matter!) receive ashes today.
So what is the big deal with ashes? If I asked you any other day of the year if I could smear ashes on your forehead before you went home, to school, or to work, you would tell me “No, thank you.” If I asked you to walk around holding a sign that told everyone you were a sinner today, you would also say, “No, thank you.” So why do we make sure to come to Church on Ash Wednesday to receive a black smudgy cross on our foreheads that says to the world, “I am a sinner? The answer is that our Lord has called each of us to be here today, and we have answered him.
But today is about much so more than receiving ashes and admitting that we are sinners, however. Today is a day that we recognize that despite our sinfulness we are children of a loving and forgiving God. As the prophet Joel said in today’s first reading, “For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment.” Our God is truly merciful, loving, kind, and forgiving. Because of this, Ash Wednesday should not simply be a single day that we give to the Lord, but the beginning of forty days of growing closer to him, to received his grace, to recognize his presence in our lives. In today’s gospel Jesus gives us the outline for building our relationship with the Lord during Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
First let us consider prayer. Most of us pray regularly. We talk to God about our lives, what has happened yesterday, what is going on today, and what is going to happen tomorrow. We talk about our hopes and our dreams. We ask him to help us and others through problems, difficulties, and struggles. Our prayer so often is about us and those around us and is rarely about God and his relationship with us.
Lent is our opportunity to change our prayer life, to encounter God in our prayer, to focus not only on ourselves and others, but to also focus on God and our relationship with him; to spend some extra time to listen to what God is saying about our day, about his hopes and dreams for us, what he thinks we need or should be doing. We must remember that prayer is a conversation or a dialogue between us and God, not a one-sided monologue. Often as soon as we run out of things to say to God, we stop praying. Often the best part of our prayer occurs after we stop talking. As St. Teresa of Avila said about prayer, “God speaks to us in the silence of our hearts.” So as we pray this Lent, we should spend some time sitting in silence so that we can encounter the Lord and hear him speaking to us.
Next let us consider fasting. When we think of fasting, we usually think about going without food, or giving up between-meal snacks for a day, or abstaining from foods that enjoy during Lent, like ice cream, but fasting is about letting go of our human desires so that we can draw closer to God.
Lent is an opportunity for us to eliminate things in our life that are preventing us from encountering God in our lives. In addition to fasting from food or abstaining from candy, chocolate, or ice cream, which is certainly a good thing to do anytime, maybe during Lent we might consider fasting from television so that we can spend time in prayer, spiritual reading, or Bible study. I think that might be why God invented the DVR after all, so that we can work on our relationship with him during Lent and catch up on our favorite shows after Easter. Maybe work, school, or recreational activities are taking up so much time in our lives that we have little time for God. Whatever is keeping us from God, we should fast from this Lent, to give a few extra minutes or hours each day to draw closer to God. .
Finally, let us consider almsgiving. The practice of giving alms is often seen simply as giving charity to others, especially those less fortunate than ourselves, but almsgiving is really about seeing Christ in others and being the presence of Christ for others. As Father Albie my supervisor when I was assigned to UPMC Mercy Hospital during my deacon formation would say all the time before we visited with patients and their families, “See Christ and be Christ”.
Lent is our opportunity to encounter our Lord in the people around us, and for them to encounter the Lord through us. We give alms when we allow the woman with a cart full of items to go in front of us in the express lane at Walmart, and remain patient when she proceeds to pay her bill with several dollars of loose change from the bottom of her purse. We can give alms simply by spending some quality time visiting with someone who is lonely, in a hospital or a home, sending a card or a letter or calling someone that has not heard from us in a very long time, by acknowledging and speaking with the homeless man on the street, or anyone who needs the presence of Christ in their lives. So as we give alms this Lent, we should recognize that we must be Christ for others and see Christ in others.
Before returning to class, the girl who accidentally washed her ashes off pointed to her forehead and said, “I think I need them put back on.” But in reality she doesn’t, because our Lenten journey truly begins after wash our ashes off.
The Lord has called us here today and we have answered him. Now it is up to us. Ash Wednesday can be a single day we give to the Lord that ends the moment we wash our ashes off, or Ash Wednesday can be the beginning of forty special days in which draw closer to our Lord. If we choose forty days of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving we are going to receive the promise that Jesus gave us in today’s gospel: “And the Father who sees in secret will repay you.” We will be repaid by encountering our Lord in a very special way this Lent, to receive his grace and experience his very real presence in our lives over forty very special days.
Rejoice and be glad!