FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT, February 21, 2021:
The Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner said, “When on Ash Wednesday we hear 'you are dust,’ we are told everything that we are: nothingness that is filled with eternity; death that teems with life; futility that redeems; dust that is God’s life forever."
My thoughts today are still stuck reflecting on our beautiful Ash Wednesday celebrations this week. We had a wonderful turnout for our COVID times, and particularly moving for me where our drive-thru ashes offered outside of the Cathedral in the afternoon. More than 50 cars pulled up filled with people who otherwise do not yet feel confident coming to in-persons services during the pandemic. It was wonderful for me, as your pastor, to see so many parishioners who I haven’t seen since all of this began nearly a year ago.
Ash Wednesday is so moving because it is one of the most authentic movements of faith that we see each year. None of us are obliged to attend on Ash Wednesday. It is not a holy day of obligation. It is an optional celebration. And yet, ask even the most marginal Catholic and they will tell you, “I have to get my ashes.”
I experienced Wednesday as a profound sign that says that even though there may be many people who do not attend Mass each week, there is still an incredible hunger for the divine, a yearning for something greater than ourselves, a desire for something more meaningful than the superficial pleasures the world has to offer, and even a deep recognition that we are sinners in need of God’s abundant mercy. This is true any normal year; I think all of these things are multiplied in these challenging times. We still desire that closeness to God in the depths of our hearts. And, I think, there is something profoundly humbling about placing ashes on our heads – something that roots us once again in God, reminding us of who He is and who we are in His sight.
Just think of the symbolism. On a very natural level, the ashes we receive are a reminder that all things end. They remind us that our time on earth is limited, that we will one day return to the dust from which we came. As we pray at a funeral Mass, “O God, who have set a limit to this present life, so as to open up an entry into eternity...” Our time on earth does not last forever, it has a limit. But, even that limit is a sign of new life – it opens up an entry into eternity.
Our ashes represent this cycle so beautifully. The ashes we scattered on our head as a reminder that we are dust, just a year ago were the vibrant and green palms that welcomed Christ and His triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. We have now replaced those “hosannas” of last year with the cry, “Be merciful O Lord, for we have sinned.” This paschal cycle of life, death, and new life is renewed once again as we enter into this sacred season.
Pope Francis, in his homily on Ash Wednesday last year, gave an incredibly evocative reflection on the phrase, “You are dust and to dust you shall return” and those ashes that we receive. He said, “Ashes are a reminder of the direction of our existence: a passage from dust to life. We are dust, earth, clay, but if we allow ourselves to be shaped by the hands of God, we become something wondrous. More often than not, though, especially at times of difficulty and loneliness, we only see our dust! But the Lord encourages us: in his eyes, our littleness is of infinite value. So let us take heart: we were born to be loved; we were born to be children of God.” He said, “Lent is a time for recognizing that our lowly ashes are loved by God. It is a time of grace, a time for letting God gaze upon us with love and in this way change our lives. We were put in this world to go from ashes to life.” Not to remain ashes, but to be transformed from ashes to newness of life.
You know, scientists tell us that the matter that makes up every human body originally began as the matter of the stars. Every atom in our body started out as the carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen of a star. That means that we are all literally composed of star dust – each one of us. And, I think God did that on purpose so that we will know from the moment of our creation is that our origin is luminous and our destiny is to shine just as brightly. From the origins of the universe until our individual births, we were created to be luminous beings. Our Lenten journey begins with that same dust on our heads as a reminder that these 40 days of prayer, fasting, and charitable giving are all meant to renew us so that we can again shine the light and love and mercy and compassion of Christ more brightly than before. To become luminous once again.
The Holy Father said, “We are precious dust that is destined for eternal life. We are the dust of the earth, upon which God has poured out his heaven, the dust that contains his dreams. We are God’s hope, his treasure and his glory. We are dust that is loved by God.”
My friends, “You are dust and to dust you will return.” But embrace that identity and all the luminosity it promises. Yes, we are dust – but we are dust that is loved by God. God loves every luminous part of your being and wants nothing more than for you to shine with the brightness of a thousand stars. And so, my friends, let us allow ourselves to be loved by God. Let us invite God to shower us with His forgiveness and mercy, especially during these 40 days. Let us remind ourselves of our preciousness in God’s sight – so precious that He created us out of the stars themselves.
As Rahner said, “We are nothingness that is filled with eternity; death that teems with life; futility that redeems; and dust that is God’s life forever.” May we all have a holy and luminous Lent.
May the Lord give you peace.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.