Ash Wednesday – February 2007

Today our Mass began without the customary penitential rite in which we are invited to call to mind our sins before we celebrate the Sacred Mysteries. Its omission is a way of drawing attention to the fact that this whole season of Lent that begins today is a “calling to mind of our sins” so that we might more worthily celebrate the Easter mysteries of our Lord’s suffering, death and resurrection.  Our Lenten journey is a memorial of our Baptism:  on Easter Sunday, we all will be called upon to renew our Baptismal Promises. Lent – if we observe it well by prayer, fasting and almsgiving – can help us understand and appreciate what that renewal of Baptismal promises really should mean for us. Our Lent will be fruitful if it helps us to come out of ourselves so that we can open ourselves – with trustful abandonment – to the merciful embrace of our loving and merciful Father. At the same time, a fruitful observance of Lent will help us to open ourselves others in their need so that we, having experienced mercy from God, might learn how to be ourselves merciful.

In today’s second reading, St. Paul exhorts us:  “We are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” Be reconciled to God!  St. Paul’s plead is for a personal reconciliation – but, speaking as an ambassador for Christ, he is also exhorting us to be reconciled, as he said, “through us”, that is through the representatives of the Church.  Lent is a season of grace and salvation.  And therefore, it is “the favorable time” for each Catholic to rediscover once again the Sacrament of Penance.

It is no secret that many of the faithful have abandoned the practice of frequent confession. And, truth be told, in many places confessions are not as readily available – and scheduled at convenient times – as perhaps they once were. I am happy to point out that here in this cathedral church confessions are heard every day before this Mass – and, our Shrine, Mary Queen of the Universe, provides a wonderful service by having a priest available for confessions every day from the time when the shrine opens in the morning till it closes in the late afternoon.  During Lent our parishes schedule special penance services which invite the faithful to participate in the Rite of Reconciliation with individual confession and absolution.  Last year, I wrote every priest in our diocese asking them to make themselves more available for the sacrament of confession.  This year, I have asked a number of our parishes to participate in a Reconciliation Weekend, so that on March 30 and 31st, immediately preceding Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week designated churches will open their doors early Friday evening and all day on Saturday and will provide priests to hear confessions of the faithful non-stop.

The Sacrament of Penance remains “the ordinary way of obtaining forgiveness and the remission of serious sins committed after Baptism”. And since Lent is designed with the Renewal of Baptismal Promises in mind, a good confession should be a part of every Catholic’s Lenten observance. Through this sacrament, we can, in the words of John Paul II, rediscover Christ as “mysterium pietatis, the one in whom God shows us his compassionate heart and reconciles us fully with himself.”

In his Lenten Message for this year, the present pope, Benedict XVI, invites each of us to contemplate anew the Sacred Heart of Jesus and see in his pierced heart the deepest expression of God’s love for each one of us. From the pierced side of Jesus flowed “blood and water” which symbolize for us the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist.

To seek baptism is to seek to become holy and the Eucharist when received worthily with the proper dispositions allows us to grow in communion with God, the source of all holiness.

To renew our baptismal promises, then, means to recommit ourselves to that seeking for holiness which should be what our life in Christ means for us as Christians, as Catholics.  If we seek holiness, as Pope John Paul II reminded us, then “it would be a contradiction for us to settle for a life of mediocrity marked by a minimalist ethic and a superficial religiosity”.

During Lent, we pray more intensely, we fast, we give alms (that is, we share with those who can’t pay us back – namely, the poor, the needy, and the handicapped).  By these special Lenten observances, we are to work on resolving “those contradictions” in our life that divert us from the pursuit of holiness.

Now this penance and fasting is not just about external actions but rather an internal attitude.  “Rend your hearts not your garments”, the prophet tells us in today’s first reading.  Our Lenten practices are not about trying to manipulate God, like the child who holds his breath until he gets his way with his parent.  And, while Jesus does not want us to hide our light under a bushel basket, the point he wants us to understand is that all that we do should be to the greater glory of God.  As we hear in the gospel today, he is rather severe in his judgment of those who use religion to draw attention to them.

Early in the first millennium of Christianity, one of the Ancient Fathers of the Faith, St. John Chrysostom wrote:  “I tell you it is possible to fast without fasting.  Is this a riddle?  By enjoying food, while having no taste for sin, that is a better kind of fasting.”  In other words, as Christians we are first obliged to fast from sin.  There is no point in missing dinner and then spending the evening destroying your neighbor with gossip. Starve your sins, not just your stomach.

Saying “No” to ourselves through some type of fasting during Lent, saying “No” to habits of sin by going to confession this Lent is all about helping us say “Yes” to God, “Yes” to his mercy and compassion, “Yes” to his plan for our lives.

Today, we begin our Lenten journey. Throughout this journey, let us look intently at Christ pierced on the cross.  It is on the cross, in his “yes” to his Father, that Jesus reveals to us in all its fullness the power of our heavenly Father’s mercy and love. His cross remains the only way for us to enter into the mystery of this mercy and love – for it is only through Him, with Him and in Him, thanks to the water and blood that flowed from his side, that we are reconciled and our sins forgiven.

We receive the ashes on our foreheads and are marked with the sign of the cross.  May this be for us a sign of our willingness to embrace the true way of life presented to us in the gospel.  When we receive the ashes, we hear again the first words of Jesus spoken in Mark’s gospel:  “Repent and be faithful to the Gospel.”

Ash Wednesday, February 22, 2007
St. James Cathedral
Bishop Thomas Wenski