A. Welcome to the Season of Lent! I hope that that the forty days of Lent that lay before us will be a time of many blessings for you and for your loved ones. Forty days may seem like a long time to do repentance and we might imagine that the days of Lent will go by very slowly. But in fact they will go by very quickly and almost before we know it, Holy Week and Easter Sunday will be upon us.
B. So, let us take a moment on this Ash Wednesday to reflect on what Lent really means, especially in light of the Scripture readings we have just heard. And then let us take a further moment to reflect on how we will get the most of Lent – a season rich in God’s merciful love.
II. The Prophet Joel 2:12-18
A. The Old Testament reading from the Prophet Joel might serve as a summons to the Church throughout the world to engage in a season of repentance. Joel, who prophesied some 400 years before the birth of Christ, called all the people of Judah to fast, to come together in prayer, and to beg the mercy of God to end a drought that plagued the land.
B. Today Joel’s voice is raised in every Catholic Church throughout the world to summon us to a time of fasting and prayer to end another kind of a drought – a spiritual drought that leaves our souls dry, parched, barren, and fruitless. “Spare, O Lord, your people and make not your heritage a reproach…” he proclaims.
III. Second Corinthians 5:20-6:2
A. If the prophet Joel is a general summons to repentance the words of St. Paul from 2nd Corinthians serve as a personal summons to each one of us to engage in this season of repentance and conversion. St. Paul appeals to you and to me to be reconciled to God and to one another. He appeals to us to open our hearts personally to Jesus Christ who took upon himself our sins so that we might be free of sin.
Paul urges us not to put repentance off until another day or another time. “Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”
B. In other words, let this be that Lent when we experience a breakthrough. In these opening hours of Lent, let us think about what needs to change in our lives. It might be grudges we are harboring, anger smoldering in our hearts, relationships in need of repair, indifference toward the poor and needy, some destructive habit or addiction, all forms of self-centeredness, self-indulgence. Then let us ask the good Lord to help us with these things in Lent – to make this Lent a time when we overcome our principal faults, failings, and sins. That is why in the Responsorial Psalm we prayed, “Thoroughly wash me from my guilt, and of my sin cleanse me…” and again, “A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.”
IV. Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
A. …all of which brings us to the Gospel of St. Matthew where Jesus lays out the means for a Lenten spiritual breakthrough and tells us how we should rightly employ these tools he places in our hands. The tools or the means of repentance do not change from year to year nor indeed have they changed much since the dawn of salvation history. They are almsgiving, fasting, and prayer. Jesus assumes that all three of these are part of our lives. He doesn’t say – if you give alms, if you fast, if you pray; no, he says, “when you give alms; when you fast; when you pray.
B. So if we want to be converted of our sins and to grow in God’s friendship, then we must lay aside our indifference to the plight of the poor and suffering. We must make it a point to provide material assistance to those in need but even more to share our time with those who live life at the margins. If we want to be freed from our sins and have a clean and pure heart, we need fast – to abstain from food and from creature comforts – so that there might be room in our hearts for God – for his truth and for his love. If we want to grow in holiness during this season of Lent, then we need to pray. Prayer is daily conversation with God – reading and reflecting on Scripture, listening to God’s voice, speaking to God about what is in our hearts. And if we want to have a fruitful Lent that will bring us to the joy of Easter, we must hasten the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the Sacrament of God’s mercy, whereby God in his love truly does create in us a clean heart by forgiving our sins.
C. Those are the tools, the means, which the Lord gives us for a good and holy Lent. But the Lord also instructs us on how to use these tools. He tells us to be generous to the poor, to fast, and abstain from food, and to spend time in prayer – not to call attention to ourselves, not to give the impression to others that we are really very good persons! No, we give alms, we fast, and we pray not to call attention to ourselves but rather to call attention to the Lord who is rich in mercy and who loves us more than we could every ask our imagine.
V. Conclusion: Dust to Dust
As you receive ashes today and hear the somber words, “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you will return – ask for the grace to be humble and contrite before God; ask for the grace to have a Lent marked by real progress in your spiritual life. Then, when Easter comes may we, who are ashes and dust, rejoice to share in the new and imperishable life which Christ has won for us.