Homily – Ash Wednesday, Year B (2012)

[Click here for the lessons]

Welcome to the start of Lent!

Lent, as you know, is that period on the Church’s Liturgical Calendar which runs from today – Ash Wednesday – all the way through to Easter. A time marked by intense prayer, fasting, sacrifice and acts of charity, in simplicity we walk the road that leads to the commemoration of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

On this day, with the imposition of Ashes, signed as a Cross on the believer’s forehead, gathered up from the burnt palm fronds of the year past, our mourning and repentance before God begins, preparing us rightly for the goal: The celebration of the Easter Mysteries. It is our accompanying of Jesus, who goes up to Jerusalem, to suffer, die and be Resurrected in glory.

Sobering indeed are the words:

Remember, O, man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.’

In this ancient formula we are reminded of our mortality and that we shall one day too return unto the dust from which man was originally drawn. The words take us back to the Book of Genesis, to the dawn of human history, when the Lord told Adam at the fall into sin:

Cursed is the ground because of you! In toil you shall eat its yield all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles it shall bear for you, and you shall eat the grass of the field. By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread, Until you return to the ground, from which you were taken; For you are dust, and to dust you shall return’ (3:17-19).

Frail we are. Weak. Given to sin. The dust of Adam. Ash Wednesday really is a reminder of our humanity.

The distribution of ashes self comes from a ceremony of ages past, when Christians who had committed grievous faults, performed public acts of penance and received ashes on the forehead as part of the official rite of reconciliation – sinners wanting to clean up their act.

Which is exactly what we want to do: We want to leave our sins behind and grow closer and closer to the Lord. This calls for repentance. I always admire the way the King of Nineveh did it: He repented of his sins, put on sackcloth, and sat in the ashes (Jonah 3:16).

Now while you and I may not necessarily feel the call to dress down in sackcloth and sit in ashes, repentance does call for a 180 degree turn in both our thoughts and our actions. To stop doing that which we ought not to do, and instead to do that which we know is pleasing to our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Why?

Let me share with you a quick historical account:

The Romans sometimes compelled a captive to be joined face-to-face with a dead body, and to bear it about until the horrible effluvia destroyed the life of the living victim. The ancient poet Virgil describes this cruel punishment:

‘The living and the dead at his command were coupled face to face, and hand to hand; Till choked with stench, in loathed embraces tied, The lingering wretches pined away and died.’

Without Christ, we are shackled to a dead corpse – our sin. Only repentance frees us from certain death, for life and death cannot coexist…’

–         Paul Lee Tan’s Encyclopedia Of 7700 Illustrations

Lent isn’t supposed to be fun. It’s serious… very serious. It is hard-going as we say goodbye not only to our sins, but also to some of our good pleasures. Mortification of the flesh. To work on oneself. To deny oneself so as to overcome both sins and weaknesses. And the season reminds us that we ever have before us a choice: To choose life or to choose death, and that the two cannot coexist. Or, as Moses put it to that nation Israel:

I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: Therefore choose life’ –  (Deut 30:19).

Lent really is one of the most painful seasons of the Church year. But then again, we cannot properly  celebrate Easter – that place where we find life, joy and hope beyond death – without first having experienced Lent. In seeking to emulate Jesus. To focus on God. To make a fresh start.

Branded with the sign of our faith, the Cross, we say to all those who will see us, that we are making a commitment to walk the way of Jesus. Ash Wednesday is a great time for us to share our faith with others. Do stress to them what the ashes mean: A Biblical sign of repentance. What a witness! By wearing ashes, we are calling not only ourselves, but the world, to repentance.

Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.’

But this only the beginning…

May I wish you a very blessed and holy Lent.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,




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