FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE FIST SUNDAY OF LENT, March 1, 2020:
One Ash Wednesday, the church was packed with the faithful eager to receive their ashes. Another minister helped the priest distribute the ashes, and they each started at opposite ends of the line and worked towards each other. But the other minister was having trouble remembering what to say. The priest said, “It is easy, you say, ‘Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’” As they were about to begin, the minister panicked unable to remember the phrase. He hurried back to the priest and asked for the phrase again. Father told him and he went back to his station. But no sooner had he left, then he returned again. This time in frustration, the priest said, “Remember, you are a dummy and you’ll always be a dummy.” The minister said, “Okay, okay, I’ve got it” and sheepishly went back and distributed ashes. As the line shrank and the priest and the minister came closer together, Father was stunned to hear the words the minister was saying, “You are a dummy and you’ll always be a dummy.”
Judging by our Ash Wednesday celebrations, I think our Lenten journey is off to a good start. We were blessed with packed churches in all of our parishes, and I have heard from other priests who likewise experienced larger-than-usual turnout this year. And, none of our ministers called anyone a dummy!
Ash Wednesday is a celebration that always moves me and causes me to ponder what it means. For example, even though we were at near standing-room-only on Wednesday, not one of us was obliged to attend Mass, or get ashes on our foreheads. Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation. It is a completely optional celebration. And yet, ask even the most marginally active Catholic and they will tell you, “I have to get my ashes.” Why is it that so many people go out of their way on Ash Wednesday to essentially come to church and leave with a dirty forehead?
I experienced Wednesday as a profound sign that says that even though there may be many people who do not practice their faith by coming to 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. We still desire that closeness to God in the depths of our hearts. And, I think, there is something profoundly humbling about these dirty foreheads – something that roots us once again in God when we so publicly and literally mark ourselves with this symbol of ashes.
Just think of the symbolism. On a very natural level, the ashes on our foreheads are a reminder that all things end. They remind us in a very direct way that our time on earth is limited, that we will one day return to the dust from which we came. As we pray in one of the opening prayers for 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, that limit is not depressing, it is in fact the sign of new life – it opens up an entry into eternity.
Our ashes represent this cycle so beautifully. The ashes we placed on our forehead as a reminder that we are dust, just a year ago were the vibrant and green palms that we waved as we 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.” The 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 Wednesday, gave an incredibly evocative reflection on the phrase, “You are dust and to dust you shall return” and the image of those ashes that we all embraced mere days ago. 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 not a time for useless sermons, but 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.
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 foreheads 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. Let us rise again from ashes as we journey once again toward Easter. And let us share that same love of God luminously with everyone we meet.
May the Lord give you peace.