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home : from the bishop : from the bishop February 21, 2019

Bishop O'Connell's homily for Ash Wednesday 2018

Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M.

St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Trenton
February 14, 2018

We begin again.  The season of Lent begins with the imposition of ashes on our foreheads in the sign of the cross. The ashes are a “mark of our repentance,” the Liturgy tells us, a sign of blessing upon the “sinner who asks for God’s forgiveness.” We are surrounded by reminders of the journey that lies ahead of us in the next 40 days: vestments changed to purple, the color of penance; the Mass stripped of “alleluias;” readings focused on conversion; fasting and abstinence are required today and on the Fridays of the season. These are all signs that help us as we “begin again,” as we seek to “be reconciled to God.”

During Lent, we Christians find common ground.  Whatever labels we may use to describe ourselves or one another, Lent unites us in a common recognition that we all have sinned; we all have failed, and we all are in need of the mercy of God rooted as we are in a community founded by the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Word of God addresses us today in both Old and New Testaments.  The Book of the Prophet Joel presents us with the invitation to “return to the Lord with fasting, weeping and mourning.” Why? Because we are sinners. Our psalm cried out “Be merciful, O Lord.” Why?  Because we are sinners. The season of Lent provides us with the opportunity to fine-tune our choices, to sharpen our vision, to intensify our willingness to heed God’s voice and to hold fast to him.  Why?  Because we are sinners. That is the path to life: from ashes to Easter!

In Matthew’s Gospel, a similar challenge is put to us, patterned on the Lord Jesus’ own experience: what is needed is not simply an outward show but most importantly, an inner conversion.  There is no better time than the season of Lent to reflect deeply upon the state of our souls and to willingly embrace the cross, not simply on our foreheads but in our lives.

We know that from the time we were little children, the season of Lent was a time to give something up as a sign of penance: candy, TV and other things as we grew up. In more recent years, the emphasis has been on “doing something” rather than doing without, as a sign of penance: going to Church during the week, visiting the sick, contributing resources to a special cause. All of these are good signs of this penitential time, but they are hollow if they don’t lead us to “be reconciled to God.”

Monsignor Luigi Giussani, founder of the ecclesial movement “Communion and Liberation,” once wrote that “Jesus Christ did not come into the world as a substitute for human effort, human freedom or to eliminate human trial … He came into the world to call man back to the depths of all questions, to his own fundamental structure and to his own real situation.” Our own real situation is this: we are sinners … and we know it!  We have made choices, some small some not so small, that have pushed God away; that have alienated us from him. But not the other way around: God never pushes us away; God never alienates himself from us. The season of Lent is an opportunity to make our situation right again  --  to get it right -- to draw closer to God, to embrace him and welcome him back into our lives again … to realize he never really left us.

Lent is Jesus’ invitation to us to penance and conversion, in the words of the Church’s Catechism (no. 1430), that “does not aim first at outward works, sackcloth and ashes, fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of heart, interior conversion.”  The “outward works” help; they are a dramatic reminder but they are only the means and not the end.

I read somewhere that “Lent is not a quick sprint but rather a marathon” a journey that symbolizes the whole of one’s life.  Conversion is the same way … not simply one moment or event -- although it can begin that way -- but a continuous series of conversions.

Today as we hear about carrying the cross in the Gospel, let us invite that cross, the very symbol of our Christianity, to burn deep into our souls a mark of renewed effort to be reconciled to God. The words we hear as ashes are imposed upon our foreheads -- “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel” -- should ring in our ears over and over again throughout the season in every situation that confronts us. We should give something up to create an emptiness for God to fill.  We should also do something positive that shows we belong to Christ.

But in both sacrifice and service, make it your aim, as St. Paul urges us today, to be “reconciled to God.”


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