Ash Wednesday 2019

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Homily notes of  Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin  Archbishop of Dublin

University College Dublin, 6 March 2019


The Rector of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York told me recently that they expect tens of thousands of people to come to their Cathedral today for blessed ashes. The Parish Priest of Saint Peter’s Church in the financial district of New York told me that he and his team would spend all day today distributing ashes to thousands from the Wall Street Community whom they may not see again for another year

What is it about ashes?  I doubt that there is any other symbol in Catholic tradition that draws so many people who would not otherwise wear their religion on their sleeves, not just to come to Church for ashes, but also to be seen even in the most secular environment wearing ashes.

What do ashes mean to us?  I feel that if I distributed a questionnaire here at Mass this morning I would get a very wide range of answers and interpretations in response.  I might even get a few honest “I am not sure” answers as well.

The traditional text that was used in imposing ashes was “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return”.  It was a warning to all of us that, given the precariousness of human life, we have hastily to put our life in order. It is a reminder that the day will come when we return to our original dust and bring nothing of our possessions with us except the goodness and integrity of the way we lived.

The more recent formula “Repent and believe in the Gospel” is a more simple yet specific invitation to change our lives and put them into line with what the Gospel means.

Then the liturgy, and especially our Gospel reading, reminds us of what instruments we can use in this challenge to put our life back on track with the Gospel: prayer, penance and works of charity.  In the past, these were summed up in the symbolism of giving up some luxury or of taking on some virtuous activity.

Is this what the imposition of ashes means?  Only to some extent!  The danger is that we interpret all of this as somehow just our own personal activity. In that sense fasting and dieting become somewhat similar.  Our self-improvement plans are little different to New Year’s resolutions.  For some the ashes serve perhaps in some way to appease a God who is watching and demanding.

Wearing ashes is fundamentally an act of faith.  It is an act of faith, not in a God who simply makes demands – it is an act of faith in that God that we heard of in the Old Treatment reading:  a God who is “all tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in graciousness and ready to relent”.  It is a about a God who in the face of the failure of his people always remains faithful.   Lent is a time in which, as the second reading notes, we are called “to be reconciled with God so that in Christ we might become the goodness of God”.

Our ashes then are a sign of our recognition in all humility that our God is one who comes to our aid through challenging us to become like God.

Lent is not about what we can do for ourselves on our own.  Lent is a moment in which we realise that faith in God does not detract from our humanity but that enriches our humanity in that we realise that there is a reality that transcends our limitedness.  It is a realisation that,  in all the vicissitudes of life, goodness and kindness will prevail even in the face of human failure, insincerity and duplicity. Ashes symbolise not a punishment of our humanity, but a recognition of the limitedness of humanity and that the mercy and graciousness of our God can heal what undermines the integrity in our humanity.

The Gospel reading then stresses that if we place ourselves alone at the centre of our refection we became like the hypocrites who pride themselves of what they think they can achieve through self-assigned goodness.

The God who is full of mercy can only be served by those who seek integrity of heart, rather than outward gestures and popular recognition.

The challenge is to really open our hearts to that loving God and allow him to make us like him.  Wearing ashes along Wall Street or in wherever our Public Square exists has meaning only if we have the integrity to mirror the goodness of our God in the way we live.   May the Lord accompany each of us on that journey.