Wednesday February 28, 2001 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Ash Wednesday
Reading I (Joel 2:12-18) Reading II (2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2)
Gospel (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18)
In the Gospel reading today, Jesus tells us to be very careful not to be doing acts in order to be seen. We are to be keeping things hidden and private. When you come to church today and you walk out this morning you will have ashes on your forehead - where everybody in the world can see them. So we ask, "Are we not doing the opposite of what the Lord just said?" The answer is no. Now, within our own individual selves we may even have to answer, "Yes", if weíre doing it out of pride, if weíre doing it so that we can be seen. If weíre doing it because we want to go to work and make sure everybody knows weíve already been to Mass and we got ashes and we want to show off, then, yes, weíre doing exactly what Jesus condemned. I have my doubts that is why anybody is here today. What we want is to make sure that we understand the purpose of the ashes. The church allows two different prayers when the ashes are placed upon our heads. One is: Remember man that you are dust and to dust you shall return. The other is the word of Our Lord: Repent and believe the Good News. The point of the matter is that it reminds us of death. Therefore, it reminds us of the need to die to self, to repent of our sins, to change our lives, to get things turned around. We can say that with those ashes on our heads we are very much like Saint Paul who said, "We are ambassadors for Christ. God is at work appealing through us, íBe reconciled to Godí."
So, if anybody says anything to you today, such as "Whatís that black stuff on your forehead?", you have a wonderful opportunity to be an ambassador for Christ at that moment. You can tell them that this is a sign of reconciliation. Itís a sign of death to point forward to resurrection. Itís a sign to remind us that this life is not all, that this is going to end, and that weíre called to something beyond it. Itís a reminder that weíre not going to live forever and ever. Even if we could, we couldnít save ourselves anyway. We are in need. We are dying people. We are called to live with God forever, but only God can do it. It reminds us of a day of reconciliation and repentance, which is exactly what we hear in the first reading today. We are to "rend our hearts, not our garments", says God through the prophet Joel.
If weíre going to rend the heart, it means that the things weíre going to do for Lent should not be just external observances. Itís not just being able to go through the motions and say, "Oh yeah, I gave up this little thing that Iíve been giving up for the last forty years". Rather, itís to look into the heart and itís to tear the heart open - to rend it. Itís a violent word when we think about it. It really means to rip it wide open. Itís to look at whatís going on in the heart. What stands between us and the Lord? Get rid of it, is what heís saying. We need to turn with our whole heart, with mourning and weeping and fasting, he says. Again, itís not just saying, "Well, I guess I can give up jelly beans again this year." Rather, itís a matter of being able to say, "I need to stop sinning. I need to turn with my whole heart to the Lord." We need to fast, we need to pray, and we need to weep. Not going through all kinds of showy things and so on, but in our hearts, to recognize that our sins separate us from God.
If we understand that, then we look at the mercy of God. When we see what we have done, thatís why we want to weep and mourn. It is not because we want to feel sorry for ourselves. Not to say, "Oh, look how horrible and rotten I am. Iím just this worthless lout that canít do anything good". No, thatís just self-pity. Thatís not what God is asking for. Heís asking us to look at the truth, to be able to seriously look at our sins and the consequences of our sins. Then, we are to look at the mercy of God. To call out to God when we see our sinfulness, when we see that by our actions we separate ourselves from God. Then we can turn and we can recognize our dependence on Him, our need for Him. We recognize the necessity of turning to Him and begging Him for mercy and forgiveness. Thatís what this is all about.
So, about those ashes that will be on our heads - remember that not too long ago those were green, live palms that we took home on Palm Sunday. Now they are dead, they are burned, and they are ashes. Once, the same was true of us. In the state of grace, we are alive, we are green and we are beautiful. Then, we sin and we become like burnt ashes. We recognize that pattern again. By our own sins, we bring death to our own self. By Godís mercy, He restores us to life. So it reminds us that this life is passing. We need to put our focus on Jesus and we need to get rid of whatever keeps us from Him. Do whatever is necessary to unite ourselves to Him. Thatís what this is about. It is not an external show, but rather an external sign of whatís happening on the inside. It is the realization of our own sinfulness, of our need for Jesus, and an opportunity to be ambassadors for Christ. Recognizing our own need to be reconciled to God, taking the opportunity to be a witness for Christ, and to call to others, "Be reconciled to God!"
Note: Father Altier does not prepare his homilies in advance, but relies solely upon the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.