Homily for Ash Wednesday 2021

Ashes and a crucifix

Perhaps today as we begin another Lent in our lives, some of us may ask ourselves: What is this holy season for me? What does this mean for my personal faith and the faith of the entire Church?

We know that the time of Lent is a time of penance and conversion. The Liturgy of the Word that we have just heard calls us very clearly to conversion and to works of penance. We also know that these days are to prepare us for a good and deep experience of the beautiful time of Easter. But I would like us to realize that the time of Lent is the time when the Holy Spirit – through the Church – makes us aware again of the most beautiful truth, how much we are loved by God and how God cares about all of us, how God cares about me and you.

During this holy time of Lent we will – more often than in ordinary time – look at the Cross, we will adore it and we will try to understand its message. What is the Cross? What does the Cross tell us? The Cross speaks of love, about God’s love for my life. The cross is not just a message of suffering. Yes, Jesus did suffer, but with his suffering He also showed how God cares about our lives. So, this is the first message of Lent and the message of Ash Wednesday that begins this holy time. Through the liturgy and through the adoration of the Cross, the Church will cry out to each of us: See how important you are to God… He became a man in Jesus Christ for you… And then Jesus went to the cross to assure you of his divine love… By carrying the cross, He took upon himself all your sins and weaknesses, so that this sinfulness would not be a burden for you and would not cause your loneliness and suffering. See how God loves your life, He comes in the sacraments, especially in the sacrament of reconciliation and Holy Communion, to live your everyday life with you. This is the first message. Lent is a great message of God’s love for every human life. Our piety and daily prayers, our devotedness, our participation in the Stations of the Cross on Fridays – even privately meditated in our homes – are our responses to this love. These are the most priceless moments of receiving this love and being saturated with it.

And the second thought – ashes. I am about to approach each of you to perform this simple sign. In a moment we will listen to the words that the Church says to us through the priest: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return, or Repent and believe in the Gospel. Someone might ask today: Why ashes? Already in the Old Testament, ash was a sign of conversion, recognition of our human sinfulness, and a sign of readiness and willingness to return to God. And this is also the case today. But I would like us to discover one more beautiful message, and to understand more the meaning of our acceptance of this simple sign. From the Book of Genesis, and from the description of the work of creation, we remember the words about the creation of man. The Lord God fashioned man out of dust from the soil. Then he breathed into his nostrils a breath of life, and thus man became a living being. By participating in this rite of receiving ashes, we wholeheartedly acknowledge that our beginning is in God. It was God who first took a bit of dust into his divine hands, breathed the breath of life and gave us existence, that is, He shared his divine life with us. We can say that we all came out of his hand. So, it is not the ash itself that is where we focus our attention today, but the divine hands of God, who is our creator and our origin. Receiving a pinch of ashes on our heads, we thank God with all our hearts for our existence, that he made us all out of a little dust. And this is how we express the hope that someday He will take the dust again and give us a new life in eternity. Every year we pause and consider this simple sign in which is hidden the deepest mystery of our existence. We are invited to rediscover our origins, but also to renew our relationship with God who is our creator and source of life.

I think we also remember the words that God spoke to the Chosen People through the prophet Isaiah: For Zion was saying: The Lord has abandoned me; the Lord has forgotten me. Does a woman forget her baby at the breast, or fail to cherish the son of her womb? Yet even if these forget, I will never forget you. And the Bible text goes on: I engraved you on the palms of my hands. I remember you so much that I engraved you on the palms of my hands – says God. These words make us realize who we are to our God. We are the memory of God; we are very much in God’s memory. He never forgets us; and this is what Lent is for, to make us realize who we are; who we are for God and who God is for us. By accepting the sign of ashes, we will hear the aforementioned words: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. And in our hearts, let us add: Yes, it is true, but God remembers this dust, God loves this dust! God enlivens this dust with His divine breath. God in the Church and through the Church tells each of us today: John, Joseph, Mary, Elizabeth, Margaret, Peter, Gregory and so on… through this dust discover the beauty of your existence. This dust says that your existence, your happiness is not in you, because you are not the source of life and the source of happiness. Your happiness is in your relationship with God.

Lent and ash at the beginning of this holy time is an invitation to a deeper relationship with God, to a greater friendship. Therefore, the time of Lent that begins with the acceptance of the sign of ashes is for all of us an invitation to return to the beginning, to the beginning of our existence, to the beginning of our faith. Amen.
Fr Gregory