Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Set the world ablaze

ASH WEDNESDAY, February 25, 2009:

I heard an interesting Ash Wednesday story from a Eucharistic Minister a few years ago. This minister was in the midst of distributing Holy Communion when a man approached. The minister was about to offer him the Eucharist, but he waved it away, “I don’t want that. I just have a question. Can you give me my ashes after Mass is over?” The minister looked at him, bewildered, and nodded, “Um, yeah,” he said, and before he could say more the man said, “Great. Thanks,” and sat back down in his seat.

Further proof, if any were needed, that we just can’t live without our ashes. The Eucharist? Well... But, gotta have those ashes. Ash Wednesday is one of the most curious celebrations. It is a beautiful call to our conversion once again, every year. But, it is also a celebration that sometimes invites the strange. Today, we have four Masses and all will be full. In fact, we will see more parishioners today than we do on an average weekend. And yet, Ash Wednesday is NOT a Holy Day of obligation. Not one of us is obligated to be here today as we are each and every Sunday. I’ve heard some priests say that it’s because it’s one of the few times you can come to Church and get something free. This probably also explains the popularity of Palm Sunday. But, maybe there are other, better, deeper reasons too.

For one thing, the ashes we receive are enduring reminders of our Catholic identity – a way that we can continue to publicly show ourselves as believers, and bind ourselves together. In a culture that is increasingly splintered and split apart, the ashes on our foreheads proclaim to the world who and what we are. You could also argue that Ash Wednesday is such a part of our tradition, nobody wants to give it up. From our earliest days, we are brought to Church to get ashes – parents will even bring babies, to have them dabbed with dust. You feel somehow left out if you don’t get them. But I think there is something else to it, too. Something that cuts to the heart of life -- and death.

One day, a man got a call from his doctor, telling him that he had lung cancer. The doctor told him that there was nothing they could do. The man hung up the phone, and looked at his family, seated around the kitchen table, stunned. And he smiled. “Be of good cheer,” he said, “None of us gets out of this world alive.” My friends, that is what Ash Wednesday says to us. It is the great leveler.

Today, we are not brilliant or creative or dynamic or sexy or strong. We are not beautiful or powerful. We are not rich or poor, healthy or sick. We are not young or old. We are just simple sinners. We are made of dust, and to dust we will return.

Almost a year ago, we began the Easter season with a roaring fire outside of the Church – we re-lived the creation of the universe, and it exploded into hundreds of points of light: small, bright candles that were held by everyone in the church. We sang: “Christ Our Light, thanks be to God.” And we were made new. Now, it is a year later, and we are left with ashes. So for this one day we will bear that mark -- the remnants of a great blaze, the residue of a fiery faith that maybe has cooled, that isn’t as strong as it could be.

And for this day, we will let others see this mark, as a sign of repentance, and humility, and humanity. As the day goes on, we’ll forget about it, and suddenly catch sight of ourselves in a mirror, and realize: We are dust. And to dust we will return. And we will see others like us on the street and think: we have plenty of company.

Ultimately, that is all we are in this earthly life: dust. But we dream to be more. We know we can be more. And so we make this 40-day journey – joining Jesus in the desert – to strive to be better than what we are, and become what we hope to be. To become more than dust – to become, in fact, light. Burning, brilliant light. And so we join the psalmist and sing: “Be merciful Lord, for we have sinned.” We begin this long walk into the wilderness. Because we are dust. And to dust we will return. We wear this mark, if only for this day, as a reflection of where we came from, and where we are all destined to go.

But we are reminded of something else, too: it is the middle that matters. It is that lifetime stretching in between that matters. What will we do with that time? How will we live? What will we be? These 40 days are a blessed opportunity to carry those questions in our hearts – and in answering them, reconcile ourselves with one another, and with God. Let me recommend three things we can all do this Lent – one personal, one communal and one universal.

First, the personal. You know that even as I share these words, God is putting something on your heart that He wants you to leave behind. It isn’t the simple and superficial practices of giving up sweets or eating between meals. Perhaps it is something major and challenging like giving up the desire to gossip and tear others down; giving up the anger and rage that control your life; turning away from problems with drink, even drugs or pornography. Whatever it is, you know God is calling you to something specific, something personal, something that desperately needs to change if you are going to grow in holiness. Whatever this personal thing is, God calls us to prune ourselves, like we’d prune a plant, so that we may grow better in His sight.

Next, the communal. During Lent, we have many additional opportunities for our community to gather in prayer. We have daily Mass. We have repeated opportunities for Confession so you can purify your soul. We have Stations of the Cross on Friday night so we can meditate upon the sacrifice Christ made for us. If we are going to successfully navigate this time of penance and prayer, we need to do it together. We need to pray together, prepare together. We need each other. We can help each other. None of us should make this Lenten journey alone. Let’s travel together towards Easter joy.

Finally, the universal. This is a time to care about our community and our world. Use the money you are saving by giving something up this Lent and give it to the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the needy. Find a worthy cause to give of your time, your talent or your treasure this Lent. Our small sacrifice can have a big impact on the lives of others elsewhere. Give not merely coins and dollars, but love and quite literally, life.

So, these are the things we can do – something personal, something communal, something universal. Let us pledge ourselves wholeheartedly this Lent that this may be a true and effective season of faith in our lives.

Hundreds of years ago, St. Catherine of Siena said, “If you are what you should be, you will set the world on fire.” This day, my friends look at the ashes, but think of the fire. And let us pray, this Lent, to set the world ablaze.

May God give you peace.

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