Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Homily for Ash Wednesday 2017

Joel 2.1-2,12-17 
2 Corinthians 5.20b  -  6.10
Matthew 6.1-6,16-21
‘Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them’, says Jesus today. And, ‘whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting’.

So what are we doing, gathering here and putting ashes on our heads? Well, we must be guided by Jesus, and not do it in order to be seen by others, and not do it in order to be dismal.

The business with ashes is part of the penitential rite for today, an external sign that we are beginning an interior journey. That is the journey of conversion, of “return to the Lord our God, for he is gracious and merciful”, as the prophet Joel said in our first reading.

Grace and mercy are essential to the journey of conversion. They make it possible to return to the Lord in the first place, and they are the characteristics and keynotes of the journey. Conversion is always a joyful thing. We have been seeking satisfaction among created things for too long, but long enough to learn that created things can never satisfy us. God alone can do that. God alone is the wellspring of our true life, and to God we return, to drink deeply of the living water that will refresh us eternally. It is a joyful thing to come home to our Father who has been looking for us with great love and longing.
And our joy is increased because Jesus Christ, our brother, fasted forty days in the wilderness, and was tempted as we are, yet without sin. God has come to us where we are and has shared our struggle against sin and evil. And although we often fail, we who are baptised in Jesus Christ share in his victory, won for us.

When the ashes are put on our heads we hear the words, “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return”. We do this, not to look dismal or to wallow in wretchedness, but as a sign of hope. The symbolic dust of the ashes put on our heads is sanctified by the prayer of the Church, but the dust of which we are made is far holier.

It is the dust of our human nature, which has been assumed by Christ and united forever to his divinity. The dust of which we are made, the dust to which we shall return, is the dust from which the body of Jesus was made, the dust raised from the tomb and taken into the glory of heaven.

There is a hymn written by the Benedictine monks of Stanbooke Abbey which says this:

In his own image God created man,
and when from dust he fashioned Adam’s face,
the likeness of his only Son was formed:
his Word incarnate, filled with truth and grace.

It is a wonderful thought that in our earliest human origins God already had the incarnation in mind, that human nature was created specifically to bear the glory of divinity. “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return”: yes, but it is holy dust, glorious dust, dust destined eternally to participate in God.

The sign of ash on our heads is not then meant to be dismal or disfiguring, but a sign of our joy that we are returning to the Lord, and a reminder of our eternal destiny. Our penitential rite today, which is long and detailed, is not wallowing in guilt but rejoicing in forgiveness, bathing in the life-giving waters of mercy that flow from the loving heart of God. We are reminded of all the ways in which we have turned away from God and sought satisfaction in created things instead. But we rejoice as we return to the Lord, the only source of life that is real and eternal.

We begin again the journey of conversion today, the path of joy as we return to our Father who awaits us. So remember that you are dust – glorious dust – and have a very happy and joyful Lent.

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