Ash Wednesday – February 22, 2023
Every year on Ash Wednesday, the prophet Joel sets the stage for the sacred season of Lent. “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. For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment” (Joel 2:12,13).
The prophet challenges us to reflect upon the essence of our lives as Christians and as authentic disciples of Jesus. He reminds us that pious actions and rituals, from the ancient practice of rending garments to express sorrow for sin to the ashes that will be imposed on our foreheads in just a few minutes, provide little support for our lives of faith unless they are rooted in and flow from the depths of our hearts where God is found. Rather, the humble acknowledgement of our need for God – the courage to set aside our own sense of righteousness in order to trust more deeply in God’s merciful presence – and the willingness to be used by God in building the Church and in caring for the suffering, broken world in which we live – reflect the movements of our hearts that lead to true conversion.
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 not because such behavior will make us appear to be righteous. Do so because such acts for a Christian are the consequence of faithful lives rooted in Jesus, who teaches us how best to live.
Pope Francis, in his reflections upon this sacred season that we begin today, has acknowledged that we face many challenges in these most difficult times 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, simply and selflessly, “to 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. 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 short, my brothers and sisters, our Lenten journey draws us to the very heart of what it means to be a Christian. Through baptism, we are brought into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, which, in turn, invites us to trust in the power of God more deeply and equips us for mission – the proclamation of the “good news” of Jesus – and the service of our sisters and brothers.
As we begin our Lenten journey, recall again the words of the prophet Joel. “Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God.” … May we use these days well, as we walk together with our brothers and sisters preparing for Baptism and full initiation into the Church. Like them, may we renew our commitment to change our hearts, through the healing gift of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. … May we be filled with awe and comforted by Jesus’ presence in the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist – strengthened for mission – and ready to assume our responsibility in proclaiming the mercy and love of Christ for our world. … In so doing, brothers and sisters, we will have embraced the true spirit of Lent and will surely find our way to life and peace.