Most Reverend Joseph C. Bambera, D.D., J.C.L.
Bishop of Scranton
Ash Wednesday – February 14, 2018

Recall the 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. He acknowledges that “because of the increase of iniquity” in our world and in our lives, “the love of many will grow cold.” And so, with great hope, the Holy Father invites us to embrace the season of Lent as “a sacramental sign of our conversion:” “Brothers and sister, once again … Lent summons us, and enables us, to come back to the Lord wholeheartedly and in every aspect of our lives.”

The message of Ash Wednesday, proclaimed first by the prophet Joel, calls us to change our lives – to trust in God’s faithfulness – and to set aside all that keeps us from reflecting the life of God within our own lives. But Joel boldly challenges us to do so, not merely through gestures and religious 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 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 the midst of the many challenges of life that can cause our hearts to grow cold and indifferent to the world in which we live – to the plight of our suffering brothers and sisters – and to the call to “walk humbly with our God,” Pope Francis bids us to reflect carefully upon the three-fold challenge of Jesus.

“By devoting more time to prayer, we enable our hearts to root out our secret lies and forms of self-deception, and then to find the consolation God offers. He is our Father and he wants us to live life well. … Almsgiving sets us free from greed and helps us to regard our neighbor as a brother or sister. … And fasting weakens our tendency to violence; it disarms us and becomes an important opportunity for growth. On the one hand, it allows us to experience what the destitute and the starving have to endure. On the other hand, it expresses our own spiritual hunger and thirst for life in God.”

Yet, 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 own broken and sinful hearts – to put aside whatever distracts us from our resolve to live authentically our relationship with God – to turn away from self-centeredness and fear – to selflessly serve the poor among us – and so, to open our lives to the love and grace of God, present in our midst.