For what it's worth, here is the text of a practice homily I had to deliver. Be nice, it was my first ever attempt at a homily!
So, Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, the start of 40 days leading up to that central point of our faith – the resurrection of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.
But what is today about? What is Lent about?
In a few minutes, Father is going to bless the ashes and we will line up and one by one be signed, on the forehead, with the Sign of the Cross, in ashes. That signing with ashes is not an annual rite of passage, it’s not something us Catholics just “do” once a year, rather it’s a symbol of intent – a sign that we intend things to change.
In Sacred Scripture ashes were used as a sign of sorrow for sign – a sign of repentance – I’m going to come back to that word repentance in a moment so keep it in mind – but in the meantime we let’s agree that ashes were used as a sign of repentance. The prophet Job tells us I am “disowning what I have said and am repenting in dust and ashes” and Daniel “turns to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes”.
In the New Testament, Our Lord Jesus Christ himself berates the Galilean towns of Bethsaida and Chorazin, warning them that they should “repent of their deeds and sit in sackcloth and ashes”.
I think you get the point: in Scripture ashes are a sign – a symbol signifying sorrow for sin. They are what we call a sacramental; an object or thing we use to focus our attention on God or increase our devotion to Him.
In each of these examples and others in Sacred Scripture there is a one common element – repentance which is a common word in Scripture. I’m sure everyone here could quote for me at least one instance of the use of the word in the Gospels. I’d go further than that and say that most people would quote the same example – Jesus Christ’s use of the phrase “Repent and believe the Gospel for the kingdom of God is close at hand.”
Generally, in English, we take the word “repent” to mean sorrow, perhaps even deep sorrow, or heartfelt regret. That is good but it’s not necessarily sufficient. What we usually translate as “repent” from the Greek sources of Scripture is the “metanoia”. That Greek word “metanoia” implies so much more than sorrow or regret. In fact, it means “a changing of mind” or a complete “reversal of a previously held position” – in short, it’s a turning around, a conversion; a positive action that is intended to lift you up, to move you from your present inferior position to a higher, better position.
This turning around, this conversion, is what Lent is all about. Turning our lives around and centring them on God; Lent is about lifting ourselves out of our present inferior, man centred focus and directing ourselves towards God.
In the first reading from the prophet Joel we get a flavour of this conversion – this turning around when he says to us “Come back to the Lord with all your heart” and “turn to the Lord your God again”. You see “come back”; “turn around”, convert.
St Paul (and Timothy) in the second reading also are on this theme of conversion. So often I find St Paul almost hectoring in his tone. He is a typical convert – and I don’t mean converts are hectoring – rather, like many converts, St Paul is absolutely certain that what he believes is the truth and yet today we find him not lecturing but imploring the people of the Church in Corinth to be reconciled to God; to turn around and lift up our relationship with God to a higher, better place. In fact he uses the word “beg” – “we (Timothy and Paul) beg you not to neglect the Grace of God”. He is pleading with us to re-orientate ourselves in the light of the great mysteries of God made real and present to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Lent - the word means “spring” – is a then a time of turning around our relationship with God, but how?
Firstly by prayer. Try to make a little extra time for talking to God over the next 40 days. Perhaps we could find time for weekday Mass? If not, how about offering up a few minutes at the end of the day, when all you want is your bed, as extra prayer time? A decade of the Rosary? Some spiritual reading maybe – you could do worse than spending Lent in the company of CS Lewis!
Secondly – self-denial. I know this isn’t a popular thing in our age of instant gratification but give it a bash! For a while it’s been popular to substitute fasting and “giving up” for Lent with prayer or alms giving but why not do all three? It certainly can’t harm us!
Thirdly – almsgiving. If we deny ourself something take that money and give it up.
Fourthly – by penance. Jesus Christ gave us the beautiful Sacrament of Reconciliation. There is never not a season for this sacrament but Lent is the perfect time so just GO. Even if there has been a 20 year gap, even if you’re scared stiff, even if you think you don’t need to go – just GO. What harm can it do?
Too often we treat Lent and penance as though it were placing the weight of the world on our shoulders. That isn’t what it’s about. Lent is a time of joy, not sorrow, conversion yes, sorrow no. Think about it – I said Lent means “spring”, is spring a time of sorrow? No, it’s a time of growth and joy! The first Preface of Lent sums it up perfectly saying: “Each year you give us this joyful season, when we prepare to celebrate the Paschal Mystery with heart and mind renewed”
And so I wish you a holy and joyful season of Lent. I leave you with the words of Psalm 50, one of what we used to call the “seven great penitential psalms”:
Give me again the joy of your help;
With a spirit of fervour sustain me.
O Lord, open my lips
And my mouth shall declare your praise.
God bless and have a joyful Lent.