An Ash Wednesday Homily
The ashes which I have applied to your foreheads are not a sacrament. They are a sacramental. Sacramentals are sacred signs that resemble the sacraments and point us toward the mystery of God’s love, mercy, and grace.
As an example, holy water points to Holy Baptism, and is a constant remembrance that “we are buried with [Christ Jesus] by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.”
The ashes also are remind us both of Christ’s death, and our burial into His death. They point us to the grace of Our Lord that lets us live now, in the midst of death; and then also later, after we are buried.
Above all else, the ashes remind us of our mortality. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
What a grim way to begin the holy season of Lent—with a mark on our foreheads that says we will die; that our bodies will become ashes to ashes and dust to dust.
Why not begin with something hopeful, something more upbeat, something that points us not to the grave, but to the kingdom of heaven?
Because the only pathway to heaven, the only way of escape, is through the grave. In the Lord’s time, and in the manner He determines.
That is our way of salvation. Not the path we have chosen, but the one Our Lord has designated. In fact, the path He Himself blazed. For you know that Our Lord Jesus did not randomly go to the cross; and that His journey was not willy-nilly, determined by fate or circumstances. Rather, in all things pertaining to our salvation, Our Lord was in full control. With His Father in the Spirit, Jesus deliberately chose to defeat death and the devil, and restore our life by His passion, suffering and death.
Take to heart Our Lord’s own words: “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.”
When Our Lord says, “Follow me,” He bids us to walk in the way He walked. To move into full and abundant life by going through suffering and death. As St Paul reminds his protégé, “All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.”
The ashes are a sign of Our Lord’s path.
The ashes are also placed on our foreheads at the beginning of Lent to declare that putting to death the deeds of the flesh is how this way of salvation looks.
We are to rend our hearts, and not our garments. Which means, we are to practice contrition, amendment of life, and true repentance not just with our lips, but with all that we are and all that we have. Self-denial is to be the way we live every day. Tending to others before ourselves; not living it up; focusing not on bodily comforts, but on spiritual things; and living, in all ways, as Christ did—humbly, mercifully, soberly: that is how we walk with Our Lord, how we follow Him from the grave into His heavenly kingdom.
That path is not a path of self-indulgence, forgetting Our Lord, and ignoring those whom He loves. That path begins by disciplining our intake, disciplining our time for prayer, and disciplining our spending so we can help more and more. Then we not conforming ourselves to this world, but are being transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.
The ashes are a visible mark that point to the grace of life that grows in us the more we put to death the urge to gratify and please and feed our own appetites. And the ashes help us see that this world and its promises are empty. Therefore, we should zero in on our true treasure. For you heard Jesus say that we should not lay up treasures on earth, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
The three disciplines of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving—those three disciplines that we begin today; that we will strive to maintain throughout these next forty days—these disciplines should mark how our life is lived from this point forward, every day that we draw breath. Fasting, prayer, and almsgiving should mark who we are, just as surely as the ashes mark our foreheads. And as we chafe under those three disciplines, let them remind us that life in Christ intensifies the more we deny ourselves.
The remembrance of death in the ashes points to the treasure of our life in Christ. In the same way, the practice of self-denial points our hearts and minds, our bodies and souls forward to the joys that exceed this life’s promises.
May Our Lord, by His grace, strengthen us during this holy Lent to live a life of repentance from this day forward, pressing forward in the pathway through life that He has set for us. To whom, with His Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, belongs all glory, honor, and worship: world without end.