Wednesday February 13, 2002 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Ash Wednesday
Reading I (Joel 2:12-18) Reading II (2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2)
Gospel (St. Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18)
As we begin this holy season of Lent, we are reminded of our sinfulness. At the end of Mass today, in the distribution of ashes, we will hear the words: Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return. That was one of the punishments for Original Sin. It is the statement of the Lord that He made to Adam at the very end of the discourse where God metes out all the punishments for what Adam and Eve had done. It reminds us of our sinfulness. This holy season, then, is a call to overcome sin. As Saint Paul said in the second reading, "We are ambassadors for Christ; God, as it were, appealing through us, 'Be reconciled to God'."
That is what the Lord is looking for - it is for reconciliation, it is for growth in holiness. As we saw in the readings on Sunday that we are to remove oppression, false speech, malice, and so on from our midst, that is what God is looking for. He is not asking that we remove M&M's™ and candy bars and ice cream from our midst. But He is asking that we would remove sin and that we would replace it with virtue. So as you begin this holy season, really look seriously at your life and ask the Lord to help you see what needs to be removed and what needs to be added. In other words, do not just simply take something away, but also increase your prayer. Look at what you can do for the Lord. What acts of virtue and holiness can you add into your day? How can you grow? We want to remove all the areas of sin, but we want to replace those with virtue, with holiness.
As we go through the day, I should also point out, as Our Lord said in the Gospel, "Be careful not to be performing religious acts for people to see." Sometimes what happens is that people get very embarrassed about the fact that they will have the ashes on their head. Other people, having no clue that today is Ash Wednesday, will be happy to point out to you that you have some dirt on your head and that you need to get it taken off. But be careful that you do not go around making sure that people are trying to look at you; it is the wrong reason. In other words, [wanting] people to know that you have been to Mass this morning and strut around with pride for doing that; it is the wrong reason. It is a symbol of death; it is not a symbol of arrogance, although our arrogance is the cause of death. But nonetheless, we need to be humble.
We need to remember why this is happening: it is to remind us of our need for penance, it is to remind us of our own mortality. Our call now and what these ashes remind us of is the need for repentance, the need for reconciliation with God. And [they are] a reminder of death because if we can consider death and know that it is not too terribly far away for any of us, it helps us, then, to put things in a different perspective, to look at all the things of life and say, "Of what use is most of this stuff? I can't take it with me. In fact, a lot of it is going to drag me the wrong direction." And so, that stuff becomes death. We need to choose life and reject death and reject all of the works of death - Satan and everything about him - so that we can choose God, be reconciled with Him, and move in the direction of eternity.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.