February 25, 2004 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)
Today, as we begin this holy season of Lent, we begin by having ashes placed upon our heads. The ashes, of course, at one time were palm branches that we received on Palm Sunday. At one time alive and green, now they are not only dead but they are ashes. We are reminded that that is exactly what will one day happen with us. Alive as we are now, one day each one of us will die and we will go back to the dust from which we were made.
It gives to us an opportunity to think about what would happen if we were to die today. In other words, as the ashes are placed upon our heads, we can ask the question: If I were to stand before Our Lord today, what would my judgment be like? What would my death be like if I were to die today? Is it the way that I would want it to be? If the answer to that is no then the whole purpose of this Lenten season is precisely to change our lives so that if we were to die, say at the end of Lent, that we would be in much better shape as we stand before the Lord, that our death and our judgment would be much closer to what we would like it to be because we have made the changes in our lives.
The ashes also have another purpose for us. Throughout history, putting ashes upon ones head is a sign of public penance. In the ancient world of Judah of the Jewish people, they used to put on sackcloth and they would put ashes upon their heads and on their faces to be able to demonstrate that they were doing penance, that they were fasting and they were allowing themselves to suffer. In the ancient Christian Church, even into the medieval times, if there was someone who had to do public penance, they would put ashes on their head so that again all the people, when they would come to church, would be able to recognize that these people were doing penance and they would have pity upon them. For instance, if their penance was to beg for alms, they knew that if somebody had ashes on their head that they were not asking for the wrong reason but that it was because of their penance. So the ashes on our heads today also remind us of the penance that each one of us is to be doing during this Lenten season.
As we do these penances, we are told in the readings today that the Church has given us what sort of things we are to do. First of all, we are to fast; that is made very clear. Today is a day of both fasting and abstinence. But it is not merely just for today; we are to look really at this whole season to be able to deny ourselves of certain things. And the reason for doing that is to be able to hunger for the Lord, to turn that into something which is spiritual. As we remove something from our lives, then we need to choose something that will fill in that area that we have removed. So the other things that we see in the Scriptures today are almsgiving and prayer. It is part and parcel of who we are as Christian people that these three will work together. Prayer is at the heart of almsgiving, but fasting is the soul of prayer. If you really want to be able to pray well, fast. And what will happen is if you are praying well, it is going to find its expression in charity toward others. The three work together. The fasting leads to greater prayer; the prayer leads to greater charity; and the greater charity toward others leads to a dying to self, which will lead once again to fasting, which will improve our prayer, which will improve our charity, which in turn will improve our fasting. That is the way it works. We cannot just do one of the three apart from the other two, or else it is going to be empty by itself, or certainly not as effective as it would be. And so all three need to work together.
As we look at what we are going to do during this season of Lent, we need not only to give things up, but we need to take things on. We need to improve our prayer life. We need to look at the areas of charity. We need to look at the areas of sin that need to be removed from our lives. Those are the things that we have to do. All of it revolves around the spiritual life. Again, making sure that the life of prayer is firmly in place so that we are seeking union with Jesus Christ, and as we go out today into the desert for the forty days with Jesus, that we enter into His fast; that we enter into His struggle against Satan and all of his wiles and temptations; and that, with Jesus if we are faithful we will rise victorious; and when this time of the desert is over, that we will have overcome the weaknesses (at least some of the areas of weakness in our lives) through the prayer, the fasting, the charity, and the almsgiving. Then we will be ready to celebrate the glorious feast of the Resurrection because we will have risen above our own selves, above our own selfish desires, above the senses and the flesh, and thanks be to God! above the temptations of the devil so that we will be more perfectly united to Jesus Christ, not only in His death, but by the end of Lent we will be prepared to be united with Him in the glory of the Resurrection.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.