Joel 2:12-18; II Cor 5:20---6:2; Mt 6:1-6, 16-18
Homily starter anecdote: 1) “Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?” Some of the senior citizens here today can remember a song that was popular exactly 47 years ago this year. In 1971, a group from Canada called the Five Man Electrical Band had a hit called "Signs". The song is about how signs are always telling us what to do, and the chorus says, “Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?” Almost five decades later, the question it poses – “Can’t you read the sign?” — is one we might ask ourselves today. We are going to be signed with ash in the sign of our Faith, the cross. “Can’t you read the sign?” The cross of ashes means that we are making a commitment – that we are undertaking Lent as a season of prayer and penitence, of dying to ourselves. It also describes our human condition: it says that we are broken and need repair; that we are sinners and need redemption. Most importantly, it tells us that, as followers of Jesus Christ, we are to carry our crosses. It also reminds us that we are dust and ashes – mortal human beings carrying an immortal soul. (http://stjohngrandbay.org/)
Introduction: Ash Wednesday (dies cinerum) is the Church’s Yom Kippur or the “Day of Atonement.” Its very name comes from the Jewish practice of doing penance wearing “sackcloth and ashes.” In the early Church, Christians who had committed serious sins were instructed to do public penance wearing sackcloth and ashes. This custom was introduced by Pope Gregory I (served September 3, 590 to March 12, 604; McBrien, Lives of the Popes, p. 96), and it was enacted as a universal practice in all of Western Christendom by the Synod of Benevento (AD 1091). Since the 11th century, receiving ashes on the first day of Lent has been a universal Christian practice. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of full fast and abstinence. Fasting is prescribed to reinforce our penitential prayer during the Lenten season. The prophet Joel, in the first reading, insists that we should experience a complete conversion of heart and not simply sorrow for our sins. Saint Paul, in the second reading, advises us “to become reconciled to God.” Today’s Gospel instructs us to assimilate the true spirit of fasting and prayer.
The blessing of the ashes and the significance of the day: The priest dipping his thumb into ashes (collected from burnt palms of the previous year’s Palm Sunday), marks the forehead of each with the sign of the cross, saying the words, "Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return" or “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” By marking the sign of the cross with ashes on the foreheads of her children, the Church gives us:
1- a firm conviction that a) we are mortal beings, b) our bodies will become dust when buried and ashes if cremated, and c) our life-span is very brief and unpredictable;
2- a strong warning that we will be eternally punished if we do not repent of our sins and do penance; and
3- a loving invitation to realize and acknowledge our sinful condition and return to our loving and forgiving God with true repentance as the prodigal son did.
Ash Wednesday message: We are invited to effect a real conversion and renewal of life during the period of Lent by fasting, penance, and reconciliation.
I- We are to do prayerful fasting: a) by following the example of Jesus before his public ministry, and b) by imitating the king and the people of Nineveh (Jon 3:7), who fasted in sackcloth pleading for mercy from the Lord God; of the Syrian King, Ben Hadad (I Kgs 20:31-34), who did not fast, but wore sackcloth and begged Israel’s King Ahab for his life); of Queen Esther who fasted, put ashes and dirt on her head and wore “garments distress” instead of her royal robes, begging God to save her people (Est 4:16); of the soldiers of Judas Maccabaeus who fasted so greatly they felt too weak to fight (1 Mc 3:17); and of St. Paul who observed "frequent fastings" (2 Cor 11:27).
(Historical note: In the past, the Greek Orthodox Christians had 180 days of fasting and the Orthodox as well as Catholic Syrian Christians had 225 to 290 days of fasting every year. The Roman Church also had a number of fast days. Technically speaking, fasting is now only required on two days, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday in Lent. In the United States, in addition, abstinence alone is commanded on all Fridays of Lent).
Fasting: True fasting is “tearing one’s heart and returning to God” with true repentance for one’s sins (Jl 2:13). It is “breaking unjust fetters, freeing the oppressed, sharing one’s bread with the hungry, clothing with the naked and home with the homeless, and not turning away from the needy relatives” (Is 58:6-7).
Advantages of fasting: a - It reduces the excessive accumulation of “fat” in our soul in the form of evil tendencies and evil habits (=spiritual obesity).
b - It gives us additional moral and spiritual strength.
c - It offers us more time to be with God in prayer.
d - It encourages us to share our food and goods with the needy.
e - “There is joy in the salutary fasting and abstinence of Christians who eat and drink less in order that their minds may be clearer and more receptive to receive the sacred nourishment of God's word, which the whole Church announces and meditates upon in each day's liturgy throughout Lent” (Thomas Merton).
II - We are to lead a life of penance because:
1 - It is the model given by Jesus.
2 - It was his teaching: “If any one wishes to follow me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me” and “Try to enter through the narrow gate.”
3 - Theological reasons: a) it removes the weakness left by sin in our souls, b) it pays the temporary debt caused by sin, and c) it makes our prayers more fruitful.
III - We are to enlarge our hearts for reconciliation.
By receiving the ashes, we confess that we are sinners in need of the mercy of God, and we ask forgiveness for the various ways in which we have hurt our brothers and sisters. In the recent past, our Catholic community has experienced acute suffering caused by the scandalous behavior of a few of our spiritual leaders. Lent is a time for forgiveness and reconciliation. Let us allow the spirit of forgiveness to work its healing influence in our parishes and families. God bless you. (Fr. Antony Kadavil)