Ash Wednesday – February 14, 2024 

Recall the first words of scripture in today’s Liturgy of the Word shared a moment ago from 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.” 

Joel sets the stage not only for the season of Lent but for our response to the Lord’s call to discipleship.  And he does so by challenging us to change our lives – not merely by performing religious gestures and practices – but by peering intensely into our hearts to insure 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 Joel, as he calls us to pray, fast, and to give alms in support of the poor – not because such behavior will make us righteous – but because such acts for the true follower of Jesus are simply the consequence of faithful lives rooted in Jesus, who teaches us how best to live.

In his message to the Church as we begin our Lenten journey, Pope Francis put these three pillars of our lives as followers of Jesus into perspective.  “Today, the cry of so many of our oppressed brothers and sisters rises to heaven. Let us ask ourselves: Do we hear that cry? Does it trouble us? Does it move us?  …  It is time to act.  …  Love of God and love of neighbour are one love.  …  For this reason, prayer, almsgiving and fasting are not three unrelated acts, but a single movement of openness and self-emptying, in which we cast out the idols that weigh us down, the attachments that imprison us. …  In the presence of God, we become brothers and sisters, more sensitive to one another.  In place of threats and enemies, we discover companions and fellow travelers. This is God’s dream, the promised land to which we journey once we have left our slavery behind.” 

Lent, then, becomes not only a time for personal conversion but a favorable season for opening the doors to all those in need and recognizing in them the face of Christ.  

In a few days, we will welcome catechumens into the ranks of the elect; those from our midst who will soon experience the saving power of Jesus in the Easter sacraments.  Their “yes” to the Lord’s call in this day and age gives us hope and should remind us that, like them, we too are called to look beyond ourselves – to continually heed God’s Word – to encounter the living Christ in the sacraments of the Church – and then to serve Christ in our neighbor!

 Our Lenten journey, brothers and sisters, draws us to the very heart of what it means to be a Christian.  Let us pray for one another to deepen our baptismal promises so that we, in turn, open our hearts to the weakest among us and welcome them into our lives.  Then we will be able to experience and share to the fullest the joy of Easter and the glory of God in our midst.