Homily – Ash Wednesday
June 5, 1944: It was the eve of D-day. A young soldier from Iron Mountain, Michigan stood in the dying sunlight waiting to go to confession. He didn’t know what tomorrow would hold for him but he wanted to make sure that he was ready. What struck him about this night was that the lines were so long. It didn’t surprise him that all the Catholics were in line for confession on the eve of the big battle. What made an impression on him was the fact that the protestants and even the Jews were lined up to go to confession to a Catholic priest. Then again, as one Catholic Chaplain put it, there are no atheists in foxholes.
This story is a true one that was told to me by that soldier 50 years after D-day. You see he became a priest and he was my spiritual director for 4 years. When push comes to shove, people know what is important. The truth of the Sacrament of Penance is not lost on anyone when the stand in the face of death. All people want to be reconciled and to confess their sins. Our readings today make it clear that we all need to do this and God calls us to it. Rend your hearts, not your garments. We must remove sin from our hearts by violence. It should be torn from us. That is what it means to rend something. Strong words.
They might be a little too strong for some people in today’s day and age. After all, many believe God is a God of warm fuzzies. There is no such thing as sin. Everybody is saved. We seem to be losing fast the understanding of personal sin. After all in today’s day and age, if you eat at fast food restaurants and become overweight then it is the fault of the restaurant not you. Or if you spill hot coffee on yourself while driving with it between your legs and burn yourself then it is the fault of the restaurant and not your own and you deserve millions of dollars. Nobody seems to be responsible for anything these days. It is always the fault of someone else.
This goes for Catholics as well. Never in our history have the lines for communion been so long and the lines of confession so short. Scripture says: “Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself.” It seems that everybody thinks they are worthy to receive the body of Christ and that they are worthy to receive Him without going to confession.
Some might think they can be worthy of receiving without confession because they confess their sins directly to God. Well that is not a Catholic belief that is a protestant one and we don’t have open communion. The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly states all Catholics are to go to confession at least once a year. It is known as our Easter duty. If you protest the beliefs of the Catholic Church that makes you protest ant. You can’t call yourself a Catholic with integrity if you deny the necessity of going to confession.
One of the many great things about being a Catholic is that we have a rhythm to our lives. We have regular times during the year where we fast, repent, mortify ourselves, rend our hearts and reflect on the great gifts we have received. Every Advent we prepare to reflect on the great gift give to us when God became man. That is why Advent is a penitential season. Every Lent we prepare for Easter and the great gift given to us in Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. That is why we rend our hearts and turn back to God. And finally every Friday of the year is penitential for Catholics because it is the day that Christ died for our sins. We are supposed to practice penance and mortification every Friday, not just Fridays in lent. We used to do it by giving up meat every Friday, for now everyone can choose their own but we are still supposed to do penance.
Why do we do this? It is said very clearly in the tracing of the ashes. Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return. Without God we are nothing. We are a bunch of chemicals, carbon, water, that are worth about 25 cents if we were split apart and sold for our chemicals. With God however, we are made in the image and likeness of the Triune God and with that we become priceless treasures. But only if we turn away from sin and back to the source of our dignity.
Lent is a time to remind ourselves that without God we are nothing. It is a time to rend our hearts and tear from them anything that might keep us from God. Everything of this earth is dust and to dust it will return. In the eternal scheme it is worthless unless it helps us return to the one reason we have meaning, which is God.
Today we mark ourselves with ashes. Not to show other people how holy we are and be like the Pharisees in the Gospel. Our reward has been received if that is the case. We mark ourselves to remind us that without God we are nothing and nothing is worth losing our relationship with God. We repent. We confess our sins. We change our hearts and our lives and we prepare to honor what Christ has done for us in his passion, death and resurrection. We go to the inner room of our hearts and pray to the Father in secret and he repays us. We each choose what we get out of Lent. Will it be a time of true conversion and repentance. Or will it just be another outward show to fool ourselves or others. That choice we will each make in the secret of our hearts. A sincere cry to the Lord to create a clean heart or business as usual. The choice is yours. Choose well.