Repent! Ash Wednesday Homily

In today’s reading, we hear the Lord’s recommendation for praying and fasting.  Try to be discreet about it.  Do it in secret so that your reward will be in heaven and not here on earth, because if everybody sees you praying and fasting and you get congratulated for it, you have already, in effect, received a reward for it.  But I’m not going to go any further into the meaning of the Lord’s recommendations because I think they are fairly self-explanatory.  What I would like to comment about is an even deeper assuming.  In this reading, the Lord is assuming that we ARE praying and fasting.  That is a pretty big assumption, isn’t it?  Is it really true?  Is praying and fasting really a part of our regular life as Christians or do we think that we are doing God a favor just by being here to receive ashes today, and then smugly give ourselves a spiritual pat on the back for being so faithful?  I am thrilled that all of you are here, both Catholic and Protestant.  It is a sign that you feel the call of the Holy Spirit in your hearts to return to the Lord, and that is a noble, wonderful thing.  But if you walk out of this church and fail to give up some of the worst sins on your list, or fail to somehow foster your relationship with God with some kind of prayer and fasting, then your presence here is essentially an empty gesture.

The prophet Joel tells us today to “return to the Lord with your whole heart.”  St. Paul practically begs us in the readings, “We implore you on behalf of Jesus Christ, be reconciled to God.”  In the office of readings today, they are even more convicting.  God answers the question concerning why we might fast and pray, but still the Lord does not seem to hear us and we do not feel his presence.  Then, he gives us a reason for why this might be so.  He says, “Because on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits, and it ends in quarreling and fighting….  The fast I desire is to release those bound unjustly, setting free the oppressed, breaking every chain, sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless, clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.”  What was one of the primary messages of both John the Baptist and Jesus Christ himself, “REPENT and believe the gospel.”  REPENT means to turn away from any thought, emotion or deed that is not consistent with the gospel of God.

Our society is pretty expert at trying to emphasize God’s love and mercy and then turning around only to continue holding fast to the worst sins on our list, or at least to not truly change our behavior into people who truly believe that following Jesus Christ is the most important thing we can possibly do in our lives–which means fasting and praying, because if we were convinced that Jesus Christ died for our sins, I guarantee you that we would fast and pray.  We forget that St. John says that “he who says that I know him but does not do what God commands is a liar.”  We forget that what St. Paul says about heaven is that eye hath not seen nor ear hath heard the wonders that God has prepared for those who love him.  The scripture doesn’t say that God has prepared heaven for everybody who just manages NOT to be a murderer and a rapist in their life.  He says that heaven is prepared for those who love him.  And how do we prove love?  We prove love by daily sacrifice, not by pretending love with pretty words or throwing God a bone by managing just to show up in church on special feast days.  What else does the Lord say?  Why do you call me Lord but not do what I sayNot everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved, but only the one who does the will of my heavenly father.  These are darned good reasons to fast and pray, y’all.  How else do we prove our love?  How else do we find out the will of the heavenly father but by growing closer to him in our fasting and our praying?

When I was praying I got an image that I just can’t quite get out of my head.  Our relationship with God is supposed to be extremely intimate– scripture testifies that it should be like the relationship of a father to a child or even a husband with his wife.  If someone in THIS intimate of a relationship says that they love the other, but never talks to them, writes them, or sacrifices for them; or when they do it, it is only every once in awhile and very half-hearted, then what is that person?

That person is a liar.  Let’s just be honest about it.  So with that in mind, what are we doing for the Lord?  What can we do this Lent that might change our half-heartedness?

So why else do we fast?  We have to remember that because of the sin of Adam and Eve, we have received a fallen nature that is never satisfied with itself, with God, or with the world.  The soul itself is a restless hunger to make sure that we get what is coming to us.  The Catholic tradition calls this by the fancy name of concupiscence.  In its wider meaning, concupiscence means the yearning for anything that we consider good for us.  It is not really a bad thing when considered generally like this.  We were built to experience desire for things that fulfill us as human beings, both physically and spiritually.  The problem is that this yearning, this hunger, has become unhealthy, renegade, and at times even downright unmanageable. So we have to discipline that hunger.

One of the reasons why we fast is to get this renegade hunger under control.  A person who is extravagant with one thing will usually be extravagant with another.  If you overeat, you are much more susceptible to oversleep.  If you are lustful, you will likely also be angry.  There is only one source and seat for this renegade hunger – it actually doesn’t matter exactly what you do to feed it, just so long as it gets fed.

We can all easily find images for this kind of hunger.  Think about it this way.  If you make a habit of eating junk food, will you really nourish yourself on healthy food?  Let me answer that question for you — no you will not.  One of the reasons why we hold fast to our sins and lukewarm practices is that we are afraid that the Lord will not sustain us if we truly do what the gospel says.  But he promises that he will.  The saints testify that he indeed does.  He follows through with his promise to sustain us.  But will we come to HIS table to be sustained, or will we continue to make our own spread and eat our own junk and then wonder why we feel so lukewarm, spiritually weak and unhealthy?

This is not brain surgery or rocket science, y’all –it’s pretty simple and straightforward.  It should be simple to understand, yet hard to say and harder to do.  But that is what we are called to.  That is what repentance means.  It is what the gospel demands.

What should you do for Lent?  You should starve whatever demon is taking you away from God, whatever it takes.  Stop feeding it.  Discipline it, starve it, and kill it.  That what fasting is for.  Engage in any sacrifice that makes you a more disciplined Christian with the ability to say “no” to your renegade desires.  And you should add whatever prayer practice keeps you connected with doing the will of your heavenly father.  It’s that simple.  And if we do that, God promises us this through Isaiah:  “Then light shall shine forth for you in darkness, and the Lord will guide you always.  He will renew your strength and you shall be like a watered garden; your wound shall quickly be healed and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guards.  Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer, you shall cry for help, and he will say:  ‘Here I am‘!”

 

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3 Comments

Filed under Spirituality

3 responses to “Repent! Ash Wednesday Homily

  1. Dino Balliviero

    What I find fascinating about God’s words to us is that He wants every human being to be proactive in their fasting. “[You] RELEASE those bound unjustly, [you] SET the oppressed FREE, [you] BREAK their chains, [you] SHARE your bread…” I often wonder if we, as human beings, have an innate fear of being “rewarded” here on earth. And I think the reward can go both ways in terms of the attention we receive. Is the attention positive or is it negative? This is why, I believe, it is so crucial to maintain that intimate relationship with the Lord because the reward we receive in heaven is unlike any other we know. Also, the image that I have in my head at the moment of “the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guards” is one that is so powerful. To have His glory be my rear guards is indescribable. I see myself enveloped with His almighty love. That is one amazing scene.

  2. Cindy Strecker

    Thank you. That was beautiful, true, perfect. A message l needed to hear.

  3. Great write-up, Im normal visitor of ones blog, maintain up the excellent operate, and It is going to be a regular visitor for a long time.

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