Miserere mei Domine: Have mercy on me, God, in your compassion blot out my offense (Psalm 51)
Link to today's Readings, Psalm and Gospel
Ash Wednesday is a very interesting day in our Catholic liturgical year. It is one of our busiest days yet it is not an official "holy day of obligation." Each parish usually has many opportunities for the faithful to receive "ashes" both after Mass or at other liturgies (and sometimes in between). When we approach to receive our ashes from the minister, we hear one of two proclamations, “remember that dust you are, and to dust you shall return,” or "repent and believe in the Gospel." These are important "invitations" for us to consider for Lent, to which we will return to shortly.
In today's first reading from the Prophet Joel, we hear:
Even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.
Our God is communicating through Joel*, who at least 500 years before Christ (B.C.), that we must deny ourselves to understand our merciful God. YHWH is communicating an important message through Joel that we are all called to holiness, that this is achieved through God's grace and our cooperation. Our cooperation begins with prayer, fasting and alms-giving. That is why later in the passage we hear Joel say, "Blow the trumpet in Zion! Proclaim a fast." How can it be that a fast, depriving ourselves of sustenance can be something to be proclaimed?
For an answer we turn to St. Paul who in today's reading, a proclamation to the Church in Corinth, says we are called to be ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor 5:20). For us to be ambassadors to the One who is God and the One who is sinless and perfect, than we must enjoin to purify ourselves by sanctification.
In our Gospel from St. Mathew, we hear that we are to pray to God privately. Our Lord is making a profound statement about how humility is a virtue and pride is a vice. He says this to counter the Pharisees who loved to pray and lament in public exposing their pride and lacking humility. They were filled with sinful pride. St. Augustine (late 4th early 5th C), when defining the seven "Deadly Sins" (not official Dogma, but helpful here) called Pride the worst.
Pride is evil and drives man to do evil things. Think about some of the contemporary tragedies in the news. Dictator autocrats are falling from power in the mid-east region. Here in the U.S. we are still recovering from the great financial crisis of 2008, the worst since the tragedy of the Great Depression, 75 years ago. And even our local baseball team, The Mets cannot escape the wrath of the great Madoff, Ponzi Scheme caper.
The tragedies go beyond these events. This is so because we have seen these things before. Dictator types seem to always re-emerge in another marginalized nation to grab power with the "solution". The Great Depression spawned legislation to prevent financial meltdown like ours from occurring again, until these laws were repealed in the 1980s and 90s. This allowed our banks and financial institutions to become "too big to fail"; hence trillions of dollars in tax payer funded "bail-outs". Every licensed financial broker must know how to recognize "Ponzi Schemes" to pass their licensing exams. Yet somehow the "loopholes" are exploited.
These things are pure evil. They recur because they appeal to our greatest vice, pride. Unfortunately, St. Augustine was right, these sins can be deadly.
Part of what Lent represents for us is solidarity in prayer. We pray in petition for our own sanctification: that we may become more obvious of our misdeeds. We also pray for the sins of the world. Things like the obvious: dictators who oppress the marginalized
and here locally the health of our government and our economy. Our prayer is a petition to God to make things right by relieving the suffering of the world. He does this through our collective human conscience.
On Ash Wednesday we are signed with ashes for at least two good reasons. First, we are signed with the Cross. This is the mark of our salvation. This is our identity as Christian. This is the means for our expiation; our share in the heavenly kingdom guaranteed by Christ for those who turn to him and away from sin and evil.
Second, we are signed with ASHES. This is because our mortal bodies will become dust once we are dead. It is a reminder that we are human, that we are predisposed to sin (Original). But the good news that the Gospel teaches us that we are redeemed by the Son of God, our Savior and our Messiah who gives us His seven sacraments to counter those "deadly" seven vices.
Ultimately we are called to the heavenly kingdom instead of our earthly abodes. But one reason that He put us here is to help Him in our tiny ways (gifts and blessings) to bring others to the light.
So this Ash Wednesday we are invited to be signed in Christ. Get your ashes early if you can. Wear them proudly on the center of your foreheads. You will be surprised how much respect you will garner for Him, and how He will shower you with grace. And I would bet that you might even encounter a stranger who asks where he/she can get ashes for themselves, an amazing grace! It is amazing what can happen when we trust in Him who is, "The Way, the Truth and the Life" and shows us the only way to the Father's kingdom, where there are many, many rooms for all who seek it (Jn 14:2-6).
*Joel (Hebrew: יואל) was a prophet of ancient Israel, the second of the twelve minor prophets and the author of the Book of Joel.