Bottom line: Jesus tells us to order our lives to God - by prayer, abstinence and generosity.
"Return to me." These are the words of our first reading: "Return to me with your whole heart." Today we receive ashes on our foreheads as a sign repentance, returning to the Lord. St. Paul tells us that Jesus, who did not know sin, became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him. Then he adds, "Now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation." Return to God.
Jesus gets very specific on how we return to him. First comes prayer. On other occasions I have asked you to spend at least 20 minutes each day in prayer. Are you doing that? If not, Lent is a good time to begin. St. Alphonsus said "Those who pray are certainly saved; those who do not pray are certainly damned." You can find that quote in this book (hold up) - the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catechism gives this description: "prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy." If you want to know what prayer is, read the Catechism. The important thing is to get started. Prayer is the first way we return to God.
In our Ash Wednesday Gospel, Jesus mentions a second way: fasting. This is tricky. Our culture has so much guilt around food that I am afraid of adding to that guilt, making you feel bad about eating a Big Mac or a plate of linguine. We are not Manicheans or Puritans. We enjoy food and the conviviality that often accompanies a good meal. Nevertheless we also must find a place for fasting. Start with meatless Fridays. On the seven Fridays of Lent, we abstain from meat - that is, beef, chicken, pork, all warm-blooded animals. The U.S. bishops are considering a return to meatless Fridays - a very good idea. The bishops of England and Wales have already reinstated this practice. But we do not need to wait for our bishops. Friday abstinence - in honor of Jesus' Passion - is a good penitential practice. Fasting, giving up some favorite food or eating less, reminds us that if we are going to get to heaven we must deny immediate impulses, take up our cross and follow Jesus.
So fasting and prayer are basic ways of returning to God. Jesus mentions one more way: almsgiving - also known as generosity. Prayer and fasting should naturally lead to generosity. This practice, while simple in itself, has complications. I honestly do not give to every person who shows up or to people with cardboard signs. Generosity means being a good steward, using one's resources in the best possible way to help others. For me this means supporting the parish and the archdiocese - and helping the needy in Peru. I ask you to do something similar.
Many people ask, "How can I help the poor when I am in so much debt?" That's a hard question. Lent is a good moment to address the issue of family finances. You can find a lot of help from a man named Phil Lenehan. I encourage you to take a look at his website. In the bulletin I've put some information about his program: “How Getting Your Spiritual House in Order Helps You Get Your Financial House in Order.” Putting one's life in order, returning to God - that's what Lent is about. Jesus tells us to order our lives to God - by prayer, abstinence and generosity.
I would like to now give you something to help you with these Lenten practices. It is a flat piece of cardboard that you can form into a small box called a “Rice Bowl.” I ask you to take one, put it together (hold up) and place it on your dining table. Inside you will find a guide for Lent, including simple recipes from around the world. The Rice Bowl will help you pray, fast and share.
So, brothers and sisters, welcome to Lent. In a few moments you will received blessed ashes on your forehead. Everyone - from infants to seniors - can receive the ashes. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Therefore, repent and believe the Gospel. And the Gospel is this: Jesus, who did not know sin, became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him. Hear his invitation: Return to me with your whole heart. Amen.
From Archives (Ash Wednesday Homilies):
Homilies for First Sunday of Lent ("Temptation Sunday"):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
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