Fair warning, I am posting this practice homily of mine that I just gave recently for Ash Wednesday. The comments were not too harsh so I think it's readable for the public. Then again, it might come off a little harsh. :)
I sometimes wonder why so many people come out for Ash Wednesday. Is it perhaps because we just like receiving something. Ashes are a novelty. Is it a chance to discover who else at work or school is Catholic. Perhaps you are like me and enjoy laughing at people who have received big smudges on their foreheads instead of the symbolic cross. Or maybe, just maybe, it has something to do with the words we will hear today as we receive the ashes. "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel" or "Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return."
These words should echo in the depths of our hearts. And they should sting. They remind of us two well known but rarely discussed facts of human existence. We are all sinners and we are all going to die. That seems a bit drastic perhaps. But it's the truth.
These ashes remind us today that an event thousands of years ago, an event that defined life for everyone of us, still effects us today. Adam and Eve told God, I think I will go it my own way, I think I'll do it myself, basically, I don't need you.
This is where it all began. We continue in the path of Adam and Eve each day.
And we do this at times in very subtle ways. Sometimes it's a matter of turning to Jesus in prayer only when something tragic happens, a car accident, a sickness, or a death. We live without Jesus until the very moment we need him desperately. We live on auto-pilot until the plane is going down and we need to find someone to fly the plane again. Or it's living our own set of morals, choosing what to buy, how to live, and what kind of work to do based on what will most satisfy our dreams rather than God's dreams for us. We just do our duty each Sunday and then go back to living for ourselves.
How do we get back on the right track? How do we turn from this self-sufficient, self-independent attitude that is so deeply ingrained in all of us? How do we turn from sin? How do we free ourselves from our death sentence?
This Lent, we are called once more to conversion, to turn our hearts back to Christ, for he has the answer. He is the answer to our stubborn hearts, our sinfulness, our future deaths. These darknesses no longer need to rule. What we have to do is let Jesus into our every part of our lives. That is the only way he can heal us from sin and bring us to eternal life. We have to define our lives by our faith, by our relationship with Jesus. We have to move from preferring to go our own way, make our own decisions, deciding what will make us happy and move towards living in the love of the Lord.
He opens wide his arms, that's what Jesus spread out on the cross represents for us, God reaching out as a Father in love. And Paul exhorts us today, Reconcile! God, even while we were still sinners, reached out to love us. He has overcome every obstacle. Sin and death no longer rule. He's just waiting for your response. How do we let him in?
There are two things that we need. We have to first recognize that we are sinners, that we are fallen, that we are weak, that we ultimately need a savior. We need to realize the need for conversion after seeing our real selves, after knowing the score. The second is to realize that God loves us in an absolute way and reaches out to us in love. He makes us his sons and daughters. This is the foundation of true relationship with God. And from here, from these two points, we can begin to grow towards eternal life. This is it. What's stopping you?
Perhaps you are afraid to go deeper, to jump in the water. You know if you get into the water, you are going to have to change your life. That's right. But would you rather live life in the kiddy pool or swim in the ocean? God is offering you everything. Complete absolute love. And as Joel says today, he is slow to anger and relenting in punishment. He is giving you a shot.
Maybe you are afraid if you really get to know your God, He won't possibly be able to love you. You'll dirty the water. You've messed up too much. Didn't you hear the words of Joel, for gracious and merciful is he? He is loving like a mother to a child. He loves you since before you were even born and he still loves you today.
Or maybe you are afraid if you put yourself out there he won't respond. You'll get in and you'll drown. But Joel again tells us that he is rich in kindness, always faithful. He already sent his Son to free you from sin and death and he responds everyday with the gift of another day, the gift of life, the gift of those around you. What are you afraid of? Jump off that diving board. Go deeper.
This Lent we have the tools. The tools of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting which we are offered during this Lenten period can bring us to Christ. But we have to use them right. We can't do as the hypocrites do in the Gospel today, using these to look good in front of audiences. It has to be about growing in relationship with God.
Almsgiving is giving back to God what is already his, freeing us from material things and allows us to be free for God. It is an act that needs to be done with love.
Prayer is simply talking with the Lord. Make time for it. Turn off the TV or the radio in the car. Just speak to Him. He's waiting.
Fasting allows us to exercise discipline in our lives, checking our stomach yes, but as a result, our interior desires for food, for comfort, for whatever else. We can also fast from cynicism, skepticism, self-worship. We can then reorient our heart to the highest and greatest good, God and his will.
Confession should also be added on here. Jesus offers the greatest gift in confession and its absolutely free. Forgiveness! Only in confession do we experience true forgiveness. Don't forget to experience his mercy this Lent.
God uses each of these tools, He works in them, if we let him, to turn out hearts completely, utterly, to Him alone. Each of these tools, the almsgiving, the prayer, the fasting, confession, to move us beyond the self, beyond our egos, to God, to our neighbor. It is this movement that brings conversion. Let God be God in your life this Lent. Dive into the waters of faith, rejoice in the love God has for you, freed from your sins, let eternal life grow in you that you may one day rejoice in heaven with our merciful and loving Father. As Paul says, "Now is a very acceptable time; Behold, now is the day of salvation." Today is the day of your salvation.