A Homily for Ash Wednesday
Grace and Peace to you from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who accompanies us through the Lenten wilderness. Amen.
It was well after midnight my sophomore year of college when I stumbled back into my apartment after hours in the library working on an assignment I was nearly certain I would fail. Exhausted, frustrated, and angry, I dropped my books and my pack, grabbed my shirt and simply pulled, sending buttons and thread flying everywhere. Standing in the doorway, a few shreds of fabric in my hand, I could only muster a sigh. I felt a little bit better, but only for a moment. I quickly collapsed into bed for a few fitful hours’ sleep, still in my undershirt, jeans, and shoes. The next morning, I woke up barely rested, and none the closer to finishing my research paper. Were this a movie, rending my clothes in such a dramatic way would have inevitably led to a breakthrough; as it was, I got a brief moment of catharsis before barely eking out a C+ on the project and in the class and quietly dropping the major.
As overly dramatic as that night may have been, the ritual imagery of Ash Wednesday puts it to shame. This is a day of, dare I say, the most Gothic rituals the Christian tradition has to offer, like something out of Edgar Allan Poe. We gather in solemn silence before falling to our knees in a prolonged confession, and then we rub the ashes from last year’s joyous Palm Sunday procession on our foreheads as a reminder that we will all die.
Despite such conspicuous actions, Lent is not about spectacle or over-the-top displays, of rending our clothing in a brief-but-dramatic moment of personal catharsis. This is not a season for showy and public displays about how miserable we’re willing to make ourselves in the name of the Lord, wearing torn clothes and gaunt expressions to highlight our humility. It’s not a season for beating ourselves up and, as some of us prepare to give up sweets or meat, we should also remember that these forty days aren’t a divine weight-loss plan.
Rather, the next few weeks are a time for us to turn towards the Lord. Rooted in the ancient practices of those preparing to receive the Sacrament of Baptism, the Lenten fast is a time for prayer and introspection, for the study of Scripture and reading the great saints of the past, of performing charitable acts. We do these things in secret, not wailing on the street corner or loudly announcing our fasts for all to hear, not calling attention to ourselves, but instead fasting surreptitiously and giving so secretly that the left hand knows not what the right hand is doing.
In quietly sacrificing some small comfort, we “rend our hearts” rather than our clothing, giving up some earthly delight to turn that attention instead toward the Lord of Heaven and Earth. The time no longer spent in front of the TV is given to prayer, the money not spent on coffee instead given to the mission of the Church or to feed the hungry. These works are not done proudly, as though to boast in our own might and wondrous deeds, but humbly, in recognition that it is the Lord at work in us, continuing to save us through sanctification, the process of making us holier as we progress towards the eternal Kingdom. During Lent, we become, by grace, more like the God who “is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
As we move toward the Great Vigil of Easter in some forty days’ time, when we will welcome the newly baptized with the entire Church across the earth and throughout the ages, we also fast with them, that on that most holy night, when we reaffirm our baptismal vows, we might encounter anew the grace poured out in this fount of living water and arrive transformed by the work of the Spirit during this walk through the wilderness.