In our ashen state, we can look honestly at ourselves
Archbishop Gregory Aymond celebrated Mass on Ash Wednesday at St. Louis Cathedral, ushering in the season of Lent. Here is his Ash Wednesday homily.
Our Mardi Gras celebrations have ended, and we come now to the beginning of this Lenten journey.
There are many differing opinions about whether or not polygraph tests are accurate. One of the principles of the polygraph test – or lie detector test, as it is commonly known – is that when we do not tell the truth, when we feel uncomfortable or anxious, there is a change in our heart rate, blood pressure and breathing. These machines detect that.
Today we are not called to take a lie detector test, but as we begin this Lenten journey, we are called to be very honest with ourselves, even if that may a cause us to feel somewhat uncomfortable. We do this in prayer.
We are to have a conversation with God and with no one else. We go before the Lord to admit our weakness and sin and our need to change. I dare say that for each and every one of us, there is discomfort and anxiety in that.
We try to hear ever more clearly what God said in his message in our first reading from the Book of the prophet Joel: “Return to me with your whole heart.” You and I today look honestly at ourselves, whether or not that is comfortable, and we go before the Lord in a spirit of humility to admit that there is one area of our life, anything in our relationships with God or others, that truly needs to change.
I suggest that we choose one particular part of our lives. I can tell you that when I think of what needs to change in my life, I could name six or seven things. I suggest for the Lenten journey we choose only one, because we only have six weeks! We want to look at the area of our lives that brings darkness to us, and perhaps to others, and ask the Lord to help us undergo that change of heart.
Once you and I have identified what it is that we believe God is calling us to change, then, and only then, can we choose a penance that would help us experience conversion or the change of heart.
For some people, their penance is to give up something – maybe a certain food or drink, maybe giving up talking about others or judging others. For other people, these next 40 days may be an opportunity to do something extra – spending more time in personal prayer, praying the Way of the Cross, spending time in the adoration chapel or attending daily Mass. Whatever we choose as a penance, that penance should be directly related to that action or attitude in our life that we believe God is calling us to change.
I know for me as a kid, it was a custom in our home to give up sweets, and that was a noble thing to do. But, looking back, I’m not sure that that had anything to do with choosing an area of life that needed to be changed. Once we see what God is asking us to repent of, then we choose a penance that will help us to do so.
In choosing our penance, we don’t want to just say after the 40 days of Lent: “Oh, well, I did that for 40 days.” That’s not the purpose. As we go through this Lenten journey and approach Easter, we want to be able to affirmatively answer the question, “Have I changed, even if it’s just a little bit? Have I changed?”
Today, we will receive ashes on our forehead, ashes that come from the palms that we used last Palm Sunday. What do those ashes means to you and me? The ashes say to others, as well as to ourselves, that I know that I am loved by God, and I believe in a God of mercy, especially in this Jubilee Year of Mercy.
As we walk through the door of mercy at the entrance to this cathedral – and we come close to the God of mercy at the altar – those ashes not only say that we believe in a God of mercy but also that we truly and honestly want to change something in our lives and that we admit publicly that we are sinners.
Every time we celebrate Ash Wednesday, I have a unique feeling of humility. As I share ashes with you and put them on your forehead, I will say, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” But, I am humbled because I, too, am a sinner, and I need to repent and to believe more firmly in the Gospel. So, it is together that we seek God’s mercy.
We do not need a lie detector test today. It may be uncomfortable as we tell the truth to ourselves and to God, as we admit a sin or weakness or something that needs to change. But after we identify that sin or weakness, we can go before this God of mercy and give that over to him.
Nothing – nothing – is too great for God not to forgive. Nothing. We may say, “Oh, God, you can’t forgive.” But God says, “I do forgive because I am merciful.” He will walk with us during these 40 days.