Homily for Ash Wednesday

Homily: Ash Wednesday (5 March 2014).Notre Dame de la Baie Academy. Green Bay, WI

readings: Joel 2: 12 – 18; 2 Cor 5: 20 – 6:2; Matt 6:1 – 6, 16 – 18

Ashes. Cold in a fireplace they may be a reminder of cozy warmth on a cold Wisconsin Saturday night with friends. Ashes. a black and gray circle of charred wood at a mountain campsite. Ashes. the remains of houses burned to the ground after a raging forest fire. Ashes. an urn filled with what remains after a human body has been cremated. Ashes. the scorched earth of a village raided and burnt to the ground by an enemy. In almost every way we experience or know about ashes they are the remains and a trigger of memory for what has been. Ashes are about the past. And that’s true today. Traditionally the ashes with which we are signed come from burning the palms or other branches blessed on the previous Palm Sunday. In every case the burning process cannot be reversed. But the ashes can be a trigger of memory.

In ancient Christianity people who pledged themselves to enter into a period of renewal in preparation for the annual Holy Week celebration of Jesus’ passion and resurrection would enter into a forty day periods when they wore sackcloth (the itchy very unfashionable clothing of poverty) and would pour ashes on their heads. They publicly marked themselves as penitents, people renewing their relationship to God and the community until Holy Week that begins with Palm Sunday and the blessing of branches as Christian communities recall Christ’s entry into Jerusalem five days before his arrest.

And that might give us a hint that perhaps there is at least one situation in life where ashes are not just the end of a process but also a beginning. We are marked this day with ashes because they are also an entry like Palm Sunday. The entry today is into a period of forty days of prayer and special practices that are designed to bring us back to God and to one another.
Traditionally those practices have been fasting, alms and prayer.
Fasting: refraining from something good in order to make us more mindful, more grateful for good gifts that we often take for granted; to create a situation where swearing off one thing will be a reminder of something else.
Alms (charit): when we refrain from something we have more available and we are able to give more to those who have less.
Prayer: giving our fasting and charity a direction. We’re not slimming down but coming home to God and moving more charitably toward one another.

Except for fashion and fitness we are not in a culture that deprives itself of food and you are probably at the age [teenagers] where you are eating more than you ever will in the future. So the challenge is one of training for a life open to greater possibility, the possibility of coming to know God who is already alive and well and working within you. The practices of Lent are meant to open doors of the body, mind and spirit to get to know, welcome and love God and one another. To take ashes is to in some small way say that we are willing to consider the possibility of allowing God the time and space to make new palms and spring branches and new life from the ashes of the past year.