A More Deliberate Approach to Ash Wednesday and Lent
by Paulist Fr. Rich Andre
March 8, 2019

Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily on Ash Wednesday on March 6, 2019, at St. Austin Parish in Austin, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Joel 2:12-18; Psalm 51; 2 Corinthians 5:20 – 6:2; and Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18.

Usually, Lent sneaks up on most of us. Suddenly, it’s Ash Wednesday, and we don’t feel as if we’re prepared. But some people feel more prepared for this sacred season this year. Why is that?

Well, first of all, Ash Wednesday is really late this year. So, even if we first noticed Ash Wednesday coming when we turned the calendar page, we’ve still had a few days to get ready. Second, the Church has talked more about its own sinfulness, as the scourge of the sexual abuse crisis has continued to widen. Third, as we continue to follow the news both here and around the world, we see the damage incurred by antagonistic public discourse.

Lent is an ideal time to reflect on how we are called to grow in our relationship with God. Today, we begin, like the Jewish people instructed by the prophet Joel more than 2400 years ago, by proclaiming a fast and calling an assembly. We will now mark our faces with soot, recalling that our time on this earth is limited, and that God calls us to greater things than the pettiness of sin.

[Bless ashes and distribute them.]

[After the psalm, but before the 2nd reading:]

We have reflected on our sinfulness, but Ash Wednesday is not content to leave us there. St. Paul now invites us to begin the process of growing in our relationship with God. After all, the word “Lent” comes from an old German word meaning “springtime.”

[after the proclamation of the gospel:]

Ever since entering religious life, I’ve been astounded at the extreme disciplines that some people – especially college students – have taken on for Lent. I’ve met people who take cold showers for Lent. The idea is that they will have greater solidarity with people less fortunate who do not have hot water. Believe it or not, because of a fiendishly complicated plumbing problem in the rectory here at St. Austin’s, I have had to take cold showers for the past 32 months, unless I run the water in my shower for 25 minutes beforehand (which I feel is environmentally irresponsible) or I traipse downstairs to one of our guest rooms. I am honored that you want to be in solidarity with me and with people who are much less fortunate than me, but are hot showers the primary thing that is blocking you from growing in your relationship with God? 

I’ve met people who do extreme fasting for Lent. They repeatedly go without food all day. The idea is that this will help them to realize that they are utterly dependent on God for everything. As for me, I usually struggle enough as it is with the fasts of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, where we have one full meal and two smaller meals. That alone makes me uncomfortably hungry by the end of the day. The reason we’re supposed to fast is to realize our dependence on God, and to give the money we save on food to those who are actually starving. Will extreme fasting bring you closer to God?

I’ve met people who do what I would call “extreme praying” for Lent. Each day, they pray the entire divine office, spend an hour in Eucharistic adoration, pray a rosary, pray a chaplet of divine mercy, and do an hour of spiritual reading. I get exhausted just thinking about it. Yes, the Church calls us to spend extra time in prayer in Lent, but do most of us truly have the luxury to spend more than four hours a day in prayer for 40 days?

Too many of us think of Lent as a time of punishment, but in reality, it is a time of opportunity. As I said earlier in the Mass, the word “Lent” comes from old English word that is related to similar old Dutch and German words meaning “springtime.” That means that Lent is a season for growth in our relationship with God. One parishioner tells me that she feels happier and freer in Lent than any other time of year, because the disciplines she takes up help to wake her up to God’s presence around her. It might seem contradictory to start the season by placing ashes on our foreheads as we are told that we are dust and to dust we shall return. But we are beloved dust created by the heart of God in the stars, precious dust formed into God’s image and likeness, living dust sustained by God’s very breath. Forests are rejuvenated by the nutrients created by a devastating fire.

So whether or not Lent has snuck up on us this year, here’s a suggested process for each us becoming more deliberate in how we celebrate the season: 

  • First, let us let go of our perfectionistic tendencies. It’s totally OK to arrive on Ash Wednesday without a plan for how to celebrate the rest of the season. We can each take this first half-week – called “the porch” of Lent by some of our brothers and sisters – to reflect on how we want to enter into the rest of the season. 
  • Yes, let us reflect on our sinfulness in the spirit of Joel and Psalm 51. Let us not only reflect on how we have sinned as individuals, but also on how we have sinned as a community: as a family, as a group of friends, as a Church, and as a nation. What is holding us back from a deeper relationship with God?
  • Then, let us look on ourselves with the compassion of Jesus Christ. Let us ask the Holy Spirit to guide us on how we are called to grow in this season of sacred springtime. Can the Spirit reveal to us the first steps we need to take to be reconciled to God, both as individuals and as a community?
  • Then, and only then, should we consider specific disciplines to take up for Lent. Instead of starving ourselves, perhaps we should limit the mindless time we spend on social media. (And for those of you who struggle with internet pornography, try fasting from that for 6 weeks. You can do it!) Instead of spending four hours a day in devotions, perhaps we could spend half an hour each day praying for the people we have gossiped about. Instead suffering through cold showers, perhaps we should practice gratitude for what we have. Instead of treating ourselves to fancy meatless meals every Friday, perhaps we should eat grilled cheese and give the savings to Catholic Relief Services.

And even if we fail in keeping up our disciplines, God is still present in our Lenten journey. Some years, the greatest insights I have received into God’s love and mercy have come from falling short in my goals for Lent.

This Lent, let us rend our hearts, not our garments. And as we open ourselves up to God in new ways, may we allow the Holy Spirit to enter into our vulnerabilities. May Jesus Christ help us to grow into the women and men he calls us to be. Now is a very acceptable time. Today is the day of salvation.