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Bishop's Homily for Ash Wednesday

We stop during Lent so that we can evaluate and correct our course.

By Bishop Larry Silva
March 06, 2019

[Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace]

Have you ever been lost?  Even in these days of Global Positioning Systems, it is still possible to find ourselves going in the wrong direction – or at least wondering if we are.  Sometimes we may find ourselves traveling in the exact opposite direction than the one we intended, or even going around in circles.  When this happens, the best thing to do is to stop, get our bearings, perhaps even (heaven forbid!) ask someone for directions.  Then we can proceed on the proper course to reach our destination.

The Church is well aware that on our journey to the promised land, to our ultimate destination of heaven, we can very easily lose our way.  We can ignore the signposts that we find in the Word of God, or we can stubbornly insist that our way is the right way, when we know in our hearts that it definitely is not.  We might even enjoy the scenery along the way to the place we know we should avoid at all costs, and so we continue along that deceivingly pleasant path.  But Jesus, whom the Church is always called to make present, gives us this annual opportunity we call Lent to stop, take stock of where we are going, and when necessary change course.  It does take some humility, of course, to admit that we just might be headed in the wrong direction, and perhaps that is why we humble ourselves today with these ashes that will be imposed on our foreheads.  It is our way of proclaiming to all the world, “Yes, I am lost.  In some way or other – or in many ways – I am going in the wrong direction.  But I am humbling myself to ask Jesus for direction so that I can correct course and arrive at my true destiny, eternal life in heaven.”

And so in today’s Gospel Jesus reminds us of the importance of humility in all we do, abandoning our arrogance and self-importance so that we really can return to the true Way the he is for us.  And he speaks of three ways we can get back on course:  prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

Prayer is important, of course, not just to know where we should be headed, but to focus on the person whose love is our longed-for destiny.  It is very easy for prayer to become an empty ritual that keeps us going in circles, but it is never meant to be that.  It is meant to be intimate communication with the God who loves us so much that he sent us his Son Jesus and his Holy Spirit to be our Way and our Guide along the way.  It means letting God’s healing and cleansing Word penetrate us in the intimacy of the private rooms of our hearts.  Sometimes we can keep God at a distance, with public respectability, so that he cannot show us the wrong directions we have taken and set us on the right path.  So Lent is not just a time for the multiplication of our prayer practices, but for letting our prayer touch the most intimate thoughts of our hearts.

Fasting is also important.  We are all familiar with the concept of dieting, so that we can lose weight, and we know how difficult it can be because we have to decide not to indulge in delightful delicacies that only help us expand and not contract.  Fasting is also difficult, but it is different from weight-loss dieting.  It means working to shed all that is spiritually unhealthy within us.  So we may be called to fast from silly talk or gossip, which we know if never good for anyone; or from always needing to have the last word in a disagreement; or from nurturing grudges.  Fasting from these things is as easy as shedding pounds, but the Lord knows that unless we fast from these things, we will surely find ourselves on the road to perdition rather than the road to life.

Almsgiving is the third way the Lord prescribes for us to get back on the right course.  This means sharing your resources with those who are most in need.  There are the obvious – and still important – expressions of almsgiving, since we know there are many people among us who do not have a decent place to live; or who need help with food because if they purchased food they would not be able to afford rent or the gas they need to go to work.  Giving sacrificially to help those who are most in need is essential if we are to follow the Way that leads to life.  But there is another treasure we have that is much more valuable than money, the treasure of our faith.  If we only get ourselves on the right road to salvation but ignore others around us who are careening off on the wrong course, we ourselves will lose our way.  One way of knowing we are on the right path is if we can invite others to know the risen Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  This definitely takes humility and courage, because no one likes to be told they are going in the wrong direction.  But if, with great love and kindness, we can direct a person whose life is empty for one reason or another, they can then discover the right way is to cling to the crucified and risen Jesus.  If we share the greatest treasure of our faith with others, we will be giving them a greater gift than any money can buy.

And so we stop during this Lenten season so that we can evaluate and correct our course.  We humble ourselves with the ashes we allow to be placed on our foreheads.  And we pray that this will not be an empty gesture that will wear off with our next face wash, but one that will truly help us turn away from sin and turn once again on the journey toward the Good News of the Kingdom that has been prepared for us from the foundation of the world.