Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Remember ...


There is no island, no continent, no city or nation, no distant corner of the globe, where the proclamation of Lenten Fast is not listened to. Armies on the march and travelers on the road, sailors as well as merchants, all alike hear the announcement and receive it with joy. Let no one then separate himself from the number of those fasting, in which every race of humankind, every period of life, every class of society is included.

So said Saint Basil the Great (330-379) preaching about Lent in the 4th century, at a time when the Lenten Fast was much more rigorous than it is today. Basil didn’t mention Ash Wednesday - because Ash Wednesday didn’t exist yet.  The custom of everybody flocking to church to get ashes was a relative latecomer to Lent. But, unlike the fast, it has survived – and thrived. It seems almost everyone wants ashes on Ash Wednesday. 


For many who come to get ashes today, it is a deeply, religiously spiritual experience. For others, who can even guess what multitude of complex meanings and imaginings this curious custom may have? On the other hand, who can deny the power of God's grace that must surely be at work in drawing so many to church to get those much-desired ashes?


The use of ashes, the Church reminds us, “symbolizes fragility and mortality, and the need to be redeemed by the mercy of God.” Remember, the Church tells us today, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. What is it about having dirt smudged on one’s face and being reminded that we are going to die that is so amazingly attractive – and on Valentine’s Day, no less?

Every year, I ask myself that question, and I always come up with the same answer: because it is true. In this “information age” when we are all bombarded on all sides with words and images we can barely begin to process, in this politicized age of “alternative facts” and just plain old-fashioned lies, for once we are being told something that is simply, unambiguously TRUE.


We live in a therapeutic age which prizes comfort and feeling good about ourselves. Yet somehow, Ash Wednesday - with its sobering message of the reality of human limits and its solemn challenge to repent - somehow still cuts through the poisonous political platitudes and psychobabble of our age to speak spiritual truth against the powerful lies that envelope us.


Today, the Church invites us to break our routine and do something we usually seem somewhat reluctant to do – to take an honest and critical look at ourselves - at where we are, where we are going, where we would like to be going, and how hope to get there.


Homily for Ash Wednesday, Cathedral of Saint Andrew, Grand Rapids, MI, February 14, 2021.


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