Ash Wednesday – February 17, 2021
Recall the very first words of scripture proclaimed every year in the liturgy of Ash Wednesday. They are taken from the book of the Old Testament prophet Joel. “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping and mourning. Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God.”
In his Lenten message to the Church this year, Pope Francis echoes the message of the prophet Joel. “During this season of conversion, let us renew our faith, draw from the ‘living water’ of hope, and receive with open hearts the love of God, who makes us brothers and sisters in Christ.”
The message of Ash Wednesday, proclaimed first by the prophet Joel, calls us to change our lives – to “accept the truth and testify to it,” as Pope Francis challenges us – and to set aside all that keeps us from reflecting the life of God within our own lives. However, remember that Joel boldly challenges us to do so, not merely through gestures and religious practices – but by peering intensely into our hearts to ensure that our spirit – the core of our being – is honest and pure and open to the transforming power and presence of God.
Saint Matthew, in today’s gospel, reinforces the words of the prophet and sets forth in practical terms the lifestyle that we are called to embrace as authentic disciples of the Lord Jesus. Pray, fast, and give alms in support of the poor. But do so certainly not because such behavior will make us appear to be righteous. Do so simply because such acts for a Christian are the consequence of faithful lives rooted in Jesus, who teaches us how best to live.
In these most difficult time, Pope Francis acknowledges that we face many challenges that can cause our hearts to grow cold and indifferent to the world in which we live and especially to the plight of our suffering brothers and sisters. As such, he bids us to simply and selflessly “love, following in the footsteps of Christ, in concern and compassion for all, as the highest expression of our faith and hope.” The Holy Father goes on, “To experience Lent with love means caring for those who suffer or feel abandoned and fearful particularly because of the Covid-19 pandemic. In these days of deep uncertainty about the future, let us keep in mind the Lord’s word to his Servant, ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you’ (Is 43:1). In our charity, may we speak words of reassurance and help others to realize that God loves them as sons and daughters.”
Finally, for all that the season of Lent challenges us to embrace, it invites us to so within the context of our consideration of the sacrament of Baptism. … On the First Sunday of Lent, we will welcome catechumens into the ranks of the elect; those from our midst who have begun the journey of conversion and who will soon experience the saving power of Jesus in the Easter mysteries of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. Their “yes” to the Lord’s call gives us hope and should encourage us to recommit ourselves to the vows that were made at our own baptisms. Their “yes” reminds us that we too are called to look beyond ourselves to something more in life.
In short, my brothers and sisters, our Lenten journey draws us to the very heart of what it means to be a Christian. We are baptized into the Lord Jesus – yes, for our life and salvation – but not solely for our own well-being. We are initiated into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – which, in turn, equips us for mission – the proclamation of the “good news” of Jesus – and the service of our sisters and brothers.
And so, my friends, as we set forth on our Lenten journey, I return once again to the words of the prophet of Ash Wednesday, Joel. “Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God.”
May we have the courage to confront the reality of our broken, struggling hearts and lives as we continue to face the pain and uncertainty born of the pandemic that has enveloped us.
May we pray for the grace to turn away from all that distracts us from our resolve to authentically live our relationship with God.
And may we selflessly serve the poor among us and so discover our merciful and loving God present in our lives – the goal of our Lenten