Ash Wednesday Homily

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Homily Notes of  Diarmuid Martin  Archbishop of Dublin  University College Dublin, 13th February 2013

“With Ash Wednesday we begin the season of Lent.  The fundamental thrust of Lent is conversion, a renewal of our conversion at Baptism, a conversion of our hearts to God. The formula that we will use for the imposition of Ashes calls on us to:  “Repent, and believe in the Gospel”. 

In the Gospel reading we have just heard Jesus reflects on the three traditional dimensions of Lenten practice: good works, prayer and fasting.  These practices have their origins and roots in the Jewish scriptures.  Let us look at what these three practices – prayer, penance and good works – can mean to us today and how they apply to our times.

The first thing we have to say is that these practices can be carried out with very different mentalities.    We can carry out these practices – and this is what Jesus is addressing – to feel good or to feel better than others or to obtain the approval of those around us.  Hypocrisy is a recurrent temptation for all of us.  There is a strange irony that hypocrisy quickly becomes the professional sin of the pseudo-believer. 

To practice prayer, penance and good work in a hypocritical way is to betray what they are really all about.   These Lenten practices have to be carried out so that we can discover in our lives the authentic mark of the true believer: they must become instruments to help us serve God with austerity and generosity.  

I use the term austerity.  I do not mean it in today’s economic terms.  I use it here in its fundamental meaning: leading an austere life, a frugal life, a style of life marked by sobriety, with the rejection of all that is superfluous, unnecessary or just demonstrative.  Lenten practice must change our focus, away from crude consumerism and from attachment to what lasts just for the day.

Our Lenten practise must then reflect an honest recognition on our part of a need for interior purification.  But again we have to understand what we mean by purification.  Lenten purification is not something negative or punitive or almost masochistic imposed from the outside, but rather a path of interior purification which releases us from the various types of entrapment that we know exist within ourselves, but which we often fail or even refuse to fully recognise.    Purification should lead us away from all that is alienating within us into that freedom within which we discover our real selves.   Lent is not just ashes for one day; it is serious business about the more serious things in life.

Christianity is not a religion of negatives and repression but a faith which opens our hearts beyond our own limitations and beyond our known competences to be able to construct a real hope for personal enrichment and for an enrichment of the society and the world we live in.  Believe in God is not about a God of magic, but it is about a creation which goes beyond what we can fathom just at any moment in history. 

As God’s creatures are called to a life of creativity and curiosity and wonder.  Christian faith is not anti-science.  It is about understanding not just matter but also what is most profoundly human.  Belief in a God of love demands that love become the driving principle of how we live and interact.   The possibility of hope in our future is determined by how love prevails in our lives and in society today.

The Gospel we have just heard talks about: “Doing good deeds in secret”.  I am not sure that this would be proposed today as a management or public relations strategy.  In our time, good news has to be got out there quickly.  Good deeds must be known, if possible even before they have been done.  Even bad news must be sold as good news.  Image is as important as substance. 

At the time of Jesus things were not much different. This is what Jesus is addressing in today’s Gospel.  It was already the custom to announce any generous donation in the Synagogue or even at a special gathering in the streets.   The same applied to praying.  The tradition at the time was to recite long prayers at particular times and there was a certain admiration of those who knew these long prayers by heart and could recite them at a minute’s notice, best of all on the public street.   The same applied to fasting, where the announcement of one’s goodness through fasting was confirmed by looking as miserable as one could and thus feeling good. As I said earlier, hypocrisy quickly becomes the professional sin of the pseudo-believer, when all our efforts begin to focus no longer on the needs of others but on our own need of praise.

In today’s world we use the term authenticity about the manner in which we integrate true values in our lives.   How are we to be authentic Christians?  

If we authentically recognise the lordship of God then we are challenged to look in a different way at life, at relationships with others, and with the gifts of creation.  If God is Lord, then our attitude to his creation must inevitably be different.  We will be challenged to recognise that the creation God has given us is destined for the good of all and that the harmony within nature is damaged by the selfishness of individuals.

The gifts of creation include also human genius and creativity.  The fruits of human genius are also destined fundamentally for the good of all and not for the profit of the few.  The great divisions in our world regarding access to food, health care and knowledge are indications of how the selfishness or the indifference of some has displaced the original design of God.

Prayer means simply placing one life is the presence of God and recognising his transcendence.  The recognition of the transcendence of God challenges all the values of the world in which we live and reminds us that there are values which transcend the day to day.

Ash Wednesday is a unique day in which within the Catholic tradition we are called to reflect on where we stand in our own lives and on what our value system is.  It means renouncing any tendency to live as if the purpose of life was just our own fulfilment and our own rights and our own image.  

The formula for the imposition of the Ashes, “Repent and believe the Gospel”, is an appeal to each of us, to identify where we have drifted away from authenticity – very often almost without knowing it – into being self-centred and self-seeking.   We all have to repent.  As believers we are called to turn back to what is authentic in our faith so that we can be more authentic in our lives.  If we fail to be authentic in our faith then we will fall quickly into indifference or into the hypocrisy of the pseudo-believers and there is little more alienating in any life than such hypocrisy.  ENDS