Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Dirty foreheads or true repentance?

HOMILY FOR ASH WEDNESDAY, February 13, 2013:
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“Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart.”  And, it is with this cry from the Prophet Joel that we begin our Lenten journey today.  It might not have been exactly what we were expecting. We usually think of Lent in the harsh terms of penance and sinfulness.  But, this cry, “return to me” is different.  It’s not the harsh words of scolding but the pleading, longing words of a lover who has been separated from the beloved by distance, or time or even betrayal. It’s a heart-to-heart cry.  This cry is God begging Israel to return to His gracious and merciful love. What a startling thought tonight.  Given our sinful nature, we should be begging God to take us back; but instead God, who loves us so much that He would even die for us, instead pleads for our return.  God is not content to leave us in our sin.  He is more like a loving parent, pleading with a difficult child: Come back in the house where it’s warm; don’t pout in your room; rejoin the family. We love you.

We have all in some way turned away from our initial commitments. We are not as open with our spouses; we are not as patient with our children. We cut corners at work; we refuse to forgive someone who has hurt or wronged us; we insist that everything be done our way. We are not sensitive to the simple promptings of God in our lives. This season of Lent is a time to step back for a moment and examine our hearts, so that we can rekindle our fervor and return.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of the three traditional Lenten practices: being charitable, prayer and fasting. But he warns us not to perform such acts for praise. In other words, our penance should not be superficial or merely for show. It must cut to the bone; it must be tailored to our own real needs. Perhaps we should be more generous with our material possessions. Or maybe it is our time or attention that we have withheld from others. Perhaps we have neglected prayer, thinking that we have little time for it when in fact we could snatch moments as we travel to and from work or while doing the dishes. Perhaps we should fast—not diet—from our favorite indulgence: food, drink, television or Facebook.

But these Lenten practices themselves are pointless if they do not turn our hearts around; if they don’t turn our hearts back to God and back to the people in our lives. The need is different for each one of us, because our struggles are also individual. Whether they are serious or not, our struggles tend to eat away at our relationships with God and with others. Paul urges us to be reconciled with God, to be open to the grace that has already been gained for us. Lent is the time to do this. It is the “very acceptable time.” It is, in fact, “the day of salvation.”

By having our foreheads marked with ashes in just a few moments, we are making public our commitment to this change.  We will surrender ourselves to God’s love; we will surrender ourselves to God’s will.  We will allow our God to mold us, to change us, to love us once again. But, if we receive our ashes tonight and don’t change our lives; if we receive our ashes tonight and don’t come back to the Church until Easter; if we receive our ashes tonight and still persist in our sin – then we leave this Church tonight with nothing more than dirty foreheads.  Make those ashes mean something; let those ashes speak something to your heart.  Make this Lent count more than any Lent has ever counted before.  Now is the acceptable time to let God who loves you so much that He begs you tonight to come back to Him with all your heart; let Him change you, mold you, forgive you, heal you and transform you once again through the grace of a life lived for Him. 

Let us not be merely a congregation of people with dirty ashen foreheads tonight; but let us be a witness to the world around us of a people who have pledged to return to the Lord with our whole hearts and make these 40 days count. My brothers and sisters, “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” 

May God give you peace.

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