Most Rev. Joseph C. Bambera, D.D., J.C.L.
Ash Wednesday – March 6, 2019 

In the first Preface of Lent, the Church reminds us that each year, God “gives us this joyful season when we prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery with mind and heart renewed … as we recall the great events that gave us new life in Christ.”

In some respects, the tone and tenor of this day, with its call to repentance, its somber colors, and the imposition of ashes which remind us of our human frailty and mortality hardly point to this moment as the beginning of a “joyful” season.  Yet, what lies at the heart of Lent is the substance of our hope and joy as Christians:  the paschal mystery – and the fact that we are redeemed – saved from our sins – by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

In his Lenten message to the Church, Pope Francis recalls Saint Paul’s words in his second letter to the Church at Corinth.  “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has away; behold, the new has come” (II Corinthians 5:17).

Therein is our hope and our reason for joy this day!  Rooted in Christ, there is no need for us to fear Lent.  Nor is it a season of grief and despair, despite the brokenness of our lives.  Yes, the path to Easter demands that we renew our faces and hearts as Christians through repentance, conversion and forgiveness.  But it does so, as Pope Francis reminds us, so that we might “live fully the abundant grace of the paschal mystery.”

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.”  …  Return to the Lord and live your life fully as a new creation in Christ, 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.

These words of the prophet Joel bring into stark focus the present moment in the life of our Church.  As members of Christ’s body on earth, we bear the marks of shame, anger, sorrow and guilt as a result of the sexual misconduct of clergy and cover-up by Church leaders.  How vital this season becomes for all of us, as we’re given the opportunity to join our woundedness, and especially the pain of those who have been abused, to the suffering of Jesus – who alone has the power to transform suffering and death into resurrection and life.

Saint Matthew, in today’s gospel, 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.

On the First Sunday of Lent, we will again 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 is meant to encourage us to recommit ourselves to the vows that were made at our own baptisms.  Their “yes” reminds us of where we need to look to find our true fulfillment in life.

And so, my friends, as we set forth on our Lenten journey, may we pray for 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 – the one and only reason for joy during this sacred season.