Hi everyone – here’s my homily for ASH WEDNESDAY – March 1, 2017. The readings for today can be found at http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/030117.cfm . Thanks as always for reading; sharing this on Facebook, Twitter and Reddit; and for your feedback and comments. Have a great Lent! Fr Jim
When you hear or see this headline, “Boy born without a brain learns to count” – it sounds like one of those headlines you laugh at from a bizarre tabloid you see standing at the checkout in a Supermarkets – you know, the ones that have stories of alien landings and Elvis sightings. But after taking the bait and clicking on the story, you learn that comes from a legitimate British newspaper, and realize what an amazingly, miraculously true story this was.
Back in 2012, Noah Wall, while still in his mother’s womb developed a medical condition called hydrocephalus. It is a very rare thing where there’s a build up of fluid that in this case pushed so hard that it basically crushed Noah’s skull destroying 98% of his brain. Think about that – he was only born with 2 % of his brain. Instead of purchasing cribs, his parents went through the devastating process of choosing coffins for their unborn son – as they were told it was unlikely Noah would survive after being born paralyzed.
But the loving parents lovingly welcomed their son into the world on March 6, 2012 – the doctors followed all the protocols that were possible and amazingly – particularly to the doctors who were treating him – a few weeks after his birth, his brain started to grow; continued to grow, and eventually was fully functioning. In the 5 years since, he continues to astound his doctors. Just 9 months ago he struggled to recognize numbers, now he’s able to count. His Mom explains, “He has been chatting so much more and pronouncing his words, he has started writing, he can follow my finger and write his name. His concentration was just unbelievable with the pen, I didn’t know that this day would ever come. You can see the excitement, and he knows that he had done something amazing… he amazes us everyday.’ His father adds more succinctly: ’It was absolutely fantastic.”
While Noah faces many obstacles, numerous surgeries – it’s hard to count the little guy out from being able to walk on his own one day – or pursue one of his dream jobs: becoming a firefighter or a doctor.
For many of us coming together this Ash Wednesday – perhaps we can relate to Noah. But for us the focus isn’t damaged brain but a little lower – our hearts… and not their physical health but spiritually: What condition are they in? Are they working at full capacity…. or is it down to 2% or perhaps somewhere in between?
The great news today – It doesn’t matter: We’re not here to compare ourselves to one another… thinking who’s doing what better; who’s more holy than the other. Because Ash Wednesday is the great equalizer. Every one of us is marked with the same ashen cross – no one is excluded – because we all are sinners. This dirty symbol is a reminder that with God’s breath of life, He was able to transform a pile of ashes into you and me… and without Him, that’s all we would be – a pile of ashes.
That truth can make us feel somber or gloomy. But it’s really meant to do the opposite. God made each and everyone of us as individual masterpieces as part of the greater masterpiece which is his creation. Somehow, in the midst of our day to day routines, we can lose sight of that – lose sight of Him. He becomes eclipsed from our view and other things start to become our “gods.” And sin creeps in.
Which is why we need Lent. We need to hear these words from the Church’s liturgy and from scripture inviting us to not just reflect on where we are at – what spiritual condition we’re in… But to actually be open to the possibility of change - of transformation – of healing and reconciliation with Him; with one another; within ourselves.
Just because Ash Wednesdays of years past may have come and gone and we didn’t notice any significant change during the 40 days of Lent that followed… Just because maybe we find ourselves struggling with the same sins, the same vices, the same temptations and don’t know if it’s possible to break that cycle (or even more honestly, if we even want to)… Just because we might be the only one in our families or circle of friends who are even remotely connected to God that we find ourselves here alone… we can’t let those doubts, those realities, those cynicisms get us down.
Which is why that story of Baby Noah really stayed with me. Not necessarily because of the miraculous aspect to it – nor to bash the experts in the medical fields, who very reasonably and understandably were trying to prepare these two parents for devastating news. But because that little boy reminds us that as certain as it is that we’re standing here, and there’s a breath and a beat of the heart going on, nothing is written in stone… nothing is definitive… There’s always Hope.
And unlike that little boy whose dire situation was out of his control – you and I have another chance, we’re offered another opportunity to seize the Hope which this Ash Wednesday and this Season of Lent offers us to accept and take advantage of it. The very fact that all of us are here – in such great numbers – is a tremendously beautiful thing. Each and every one of us made a choice, a decision to change our routines, rearrange our schedules to be here. The Lord called you and moved you somehow that you made the choice to be here. Which I thank God for – for His work which somehow reached all of us
The beautiful thing about our being here together today – is that hopefully that’s the spark we need to take another step, move a little bit more further in responding to His grace. To see that when we gather together in prayer at Mass, we experience Jesus’ presence among us, with us and through us – in His Body and Blood in the Eucharist; in His word being proclaimed in the Scriptures and in the community – all of us brothers and sisters coming together. In a world that seems to grow more divided and fractured – where people seem less able to agree on anything, this gathering is special since we can agree on two things – God Loves us and We’re all sinners that need Him.
To take to heart the other invitations Jesus offers us – to Fast - to simplify our complex lives by reducing the influence of things whose importance has grown too much; to give Alms - to in some way, some manner give of ourselves to help others…. in these ways, we stop looking inward on ourselves, and in the process our visions expand and our hearts grow.
Lent can seem gloomy, but it doesn’t need to be. It was never meant to be. It takes us where we are, weak or strong, proud or ashamed – and gives us the tools to free ourselves. Free ourselves of our sins, of those things we are becoming enslaved to, things that are taking up too much space in our hearts. And filling up that space instead with love. Love of God. Love of our families and friends. Love of neighbors. Even Love of our enemies. We cannot pray for God to fill us – to come to us and fill us and make us feel complete, if we are full already. Like a cup, we need to dump out what’s there if it isn’t serving us, if it isn’t helping us or bringing us the happiness Jesus Christ wants for us and then – in our vulnerability, our literal ‘emptiness’ which may be momentarily uncomfortable or unfamiliar, to allow Jesus Christ in.
He can change our hearts, He can heal our souls us, He can work miracles in our lives, too. Even if we feel not at full capacity… or we think were down to 2% Even if we feel we have nothing left within. God can do that in all of our lives. Today is the day that we let Him.