Cathedral in Trenton -- February 10, 2016
Ashes are an ancient symbol, cultural and biblical, for showing grief. In the Old Testament, for example, we read about many occasions when ashes were used for this purpose: the Books of Numbers, Samuel, Esther; the writings of the prophets Job, Jonah, Jeremiah and Daniel; the Book of Maccabees all contain descriptions of ashes being used to show sorrow for any number of sad reasons.
In Christian traditions, including the New Testament Gospels of Matthew and Luke and the writings of the early Church Fathers, ashes were referred to as a sign of penance and repentance for sins. Even the Lord Jesus himself mentions them.
The practice of placing ashes on the heads of sinners became commonplace in the Catholic Church by the 10th century as a liturgical symbol marking the beginning of Lent, the Church's period of penance, a custom that became mandatory in the Roman Church by decree of Pope Urban II in 1091, with the first day of Lent becoming fixed on what became known as "Ash Wednesday." The practice continues to the present day.
I mention this today, "Ash Wednesday," to show the historical depth of the tradition we annually commemorate.
In our Liturgy of the Word, the readings draw our attention to the season we begin today. The prophet Joel extends the Lord God's invitation to his people to return to him with full hearts, fasting and weeping and mourning. Why use these signs, why rend our hearts as we return our hearts to the Lord? Joel tells us why. The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and rich in kindness. Showing repentance, he indicates, can turn God's judgment to mercy, can stir his concern for us to the point of pity. And so we continue to pray in the Psalms, especially Psalm 51, "be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned."
Once again, we find ourselves in the Season of Lent --- the acceptable time, the day of salvation --- when we acknowledge with St. Paul in his Second Letter to the Corinthians the extent of God's mercy: for our sake God made him who did not know sin, to be sin --- to take on our sinful human flesh and redeem it from within, to save us from ourselves.
It comes as a bit of a surprise, even confusing given the long history of ashes and fasting, that the Church chose today's Gospel from Matthew when the Lord Jesus himself argues against public displays of inner spiritual intentions and dispositions. The Father reads our hearts and doesn't need such demonstrations. It is not so much that these practices are bad or unacceptable for the Christian but, rather, sincere, heartfelt repentance, change of heart, conversion is what God seeks and what the Season of Lent is all about. And God's mercy is the real motivation and the only reward --- not appearances, not recognition, not some show rooted hypocrisy. Taking the ashes today is an admission from your heart that you are willing to try to change what needs to change in your life on the path to conversion, to Easter.
And, so, this Lent, fast and abstain when the Church requires it; give something up to make room for God and his mercy to fill you. Pray more and pray deeply and whenever you can because God listens to you: prayer puts you in touch with God and his mercy. Do something good for someone else every day; resolve to care about someone else every day, because God does, Jesus does and wants you to be like him, loving and full of mercy. Don’t make this Lent a complicated regimen of resolutions and promises that will unravel a week from now. Make it simple. Make it real.
The forty days ahead of us as we prepare to commemorate the death and resurrection of the Lord are the acceptable time to make yourself ready for the day of salvation. Repent and believe the good news!