Summary: The key to making Lent a time of growth.

Ash Wednesday Homily


There’s not much chance today that someone will see the ashes on your forehead and say “Oh, what a wonderfully pious person that is.” It’s more likely that someone who doesn’t know you are Catholic will ask, “did you know there’s a smudge on your forehead?”

I am told that Ash Wednesday sees more people in church than even Easter. That is a cause for confidence in the vitality of our communion. Nobody who thinks he’s perfect comes to church today. The parking lot is too crowded. All of us are here to acknowledge that we are chronic screw-ups. All of us are here to tell God that we need help. And the good news is that God is here to tell us that He will do exactly that. But when the ashes are on our heads, the growing must begin.

First, we fast. Yes, we avoid beef and poultry today, and on every Friday we should do the same. But going out for a high-priced wine-sauce redfish might not be much of a penance. The most important fast is to stop sinning. Identify some chronic sin in your life and ask God for the grace to turn that energy into worship. Go to confession; ask forgiveness. It might be spending too much money shopping, or overeating. For almost half of all men, it’s a habit of Internet pornography and self-abuse. Discern what in your life is keeping you from prayer and growing in your love for God and other men and women. Ask God to heal you; he will always answer that prayer.

Only then can we virtuously fast from whatever self-indulgence we want to offer to God. Walk to Church instead of driving. Eat smaller portions. Give up a favorite TV show and read or listen to the Bible for 20-30 minutes a day. Exercise your body and your soul.

The money we don’t spend on ourselves should be given in alms. The rice bowl for your spare change is a great tradition in many homes. Eat bread and water once a week on Wednesday or Friday for one meal, and give the money to St. Vincent de Paul or Catholic Relief Services for Haiti. Buy a couple of square feet in our Habitat house. Do something for someone who can’t do anything for himself. If you have no money, donate your time.

And, of course, pray. What that means is to spend either more time or better quality time in communication with God. Two suggestions I have found useful: first, enlist the Blessed Virgin as a prayer partner. When you begin to pray, ask her to pray with you and for you. Our Mother will always do that for us. She will lead us more reliably to Her Son, Jesus, than anyone else. Second, spend time listening when you pray. God knows what we need; do we know what He wants? Listen to him in your heart. He may speak to you through the Scriptures, through a chance encounter, or through a still, small voice of love. And, rather than have you listen to me for another five minutes, we’ll begin that habit right now with a moment of silent listening.

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