March 5, 2003 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 blessed season of Lent, the readings today lay out for us the manner in which we are to approach this. We hear, for instance, in the first reading that we are to call together all of the people, to call an assembly, and to have them pray, and have the priests praying and weeping before the Lord, begging for mercy for the people. The people, on the other hand, are also to be praying and fasting. Saint Paul tells us that he is like an ambassador for Christ, God appealing through him that we would all be reconciled to God. That is what this is all about; it is about union with God, reconciliation with the Lord, uniting our hearts more perfectly with Him. It is about growth in holiness.
This is a season, certainly, of self-denial; but that self-denial is not just an end in itself, but rather, it has a specific purpose – and that is to be able to grow in holiness. As we deny ourselves on one level, we need to fill that in with something else. We take one thing away and we fill that area up, and we fill it with holiness. So in the Gospel reading, then, Jesus tells us the way this is to be done. He tells us that we are to do this in secret, not to be making a big issue of what it is that we are doing, not to be running around trying to make a scene for others to notice that we are doing something different. In fact, on a day like today, we need to be particularly careful, as it is a day of fasting. And so for those who have to take care of children or those who need to go to work or whatever, anybody who does not just have to be all by himself, you need to be careful that you maintain your charity, your joy, your patience, and so on. Fasting and being impatient and biting people’s heads off is not the way that God would have us fast, but rather if we are going to offer this little tiny bit (and that is really all that it is: this little tiny bit of suffering) to the Lord, we need to be able to do that with the greatest charity. And we need to keep in mind that we are offering it for the good of others.
Recall, again, that our Holy Father has asked specifically that we would fast and pray today for peace. If the result of what we are doing in praying for peace becomes a lack of peace around us because we are not at peace, then we are totally destroying the very purpose for which we are doing this. So we need to be at peace. We need to be in union with Christ; that is the way we will be at peace. If it is just “me fasting for the sake of fasting,” first of all, it will be easy by lunchtime to give up, and secondly, it will be very frustrating because it is just “me by own strength trying to do it.” But if I am fasting in union with Christ and for a purpose, then it takes on a whole different dimension. That is the way we need to see it: that we are not doing it by our own strength but by His strength; and that we are not doing it for ourselves or some selfish reason, but rather it is being done out of charity for others. If we can keep that clearly in mind, then we can have strength to cooperate with the grace and have the strength to be able to continue with whatever our penance happens to be during this holy season.
But we need to look seriously at the penance we have chosen and ask ourselves, “Is this going to help me toward Christ? Is this going to help me move closer to Heaven? Or is it just something that is for myself?” That is what we need to look at. Is it just something that is earthbound or is it something that is going to lift me up toward Heaven? That is the question that is most critical because this holy season is about self-denial, and if our penance is selfish, it, again, defeats the purpose. Our penance needs to be out of love for Christ and it needs to lead us to greater union with Christ. So as we begin this season today with a day of fasting, with a day of abstinence, and a day of prayer, it sets the tone for the whole season to be able to deny the self – indeed, to learn to die to self – so that we can live for Christ and we can grow in perfect union with Christ; and in that way, to be reconciled to Him, and through us, through our prayer, through our self-denial, it will also bring others to be reconciled to Christ.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.