I’ve found myself feeling oddly emotional coming to this day, Ash Wednesday.  I’m not going to have an emotional breakdown (well I hope) and I get how weird this might sound.  Because of all the days, events, traditions, things that have been postponed, canceled, altered or just royally screwed up in a viral pandemic, to get emotional about Ash Wednesday sounds really weird for sure.

Thanks so much for stopping by to read this, my homily for ASH WEDNESDAY – February 17, 2021, for sharing it on your social media posts and your feedback and comments! For the audio version you can get them at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE. Thanks again… I hope you and yours experience all of God’s blessings today and always! In Christ – Father Jim

It’s not that I’m feeling upset that I can’t trace crosses on your forehead this year (sorry if you missed that notice, we have to sprinkle them on your head which is the European custom and considered a safer non-contact way of distributing ashes this year) and have people comparing my form on their “Ash Wednesday memes” and charts of ashtags/selfies.  It’s not that I’m frustrated that we are limited in how many people can be here for Mass (although that is something that weighs on me, I’m just grateful we can be together and I’m so thankful to everyone at the University who really worked hard to accommodate us safely)

What’s making today a bit emotional for me is realizing that, a year ago when we last celebrated Ash Wednesday was the last time things were “normal.”

Ash Wednesday 2020, here was a normal, beautifully busy day for us here.  Hundreds of people joined us for 4 Masses here and confessions all day…  We had all kinds of plans, ideas, and hopes for the season of Lent as a community.  Yeah we had heard some things about this virus… but it didn’t seem like anything we needed to worry about… maybe we were being deliberately naive or overly optimistic.  But when I look back and see pictures from that day and just look at notes, flyers, and emails from last Ash Wednesday and stuff from then, there was no inkling of what was to come:  Spring Break getting extended (actually I didn’t necessarily mind another week off…), but then everyone being sent home.   To the great feast of Easter which is so important, that is basically why we gather today – we begin a 40 day preparation for Easter – that Easter would effectively be cancelled around the world and relegated to simply being live-streamed… none of those things could have been imagined a year ago.    That we’d be isolated from each other for days, weeks, months… It’s just been weird recognizing that Ash Wednesday last year was the last time anything was “normal.”

Where were you last Ash Wednesday?  Can you remember what you planned on giving up?  Or what you planned to do, to take on to help you grow closer with the Lord?

More importantly – Where are you now – emotionally, spiritually?  It’s been a time of unprecedented losses for people.  There’s been the tragic loss of life that is unimaginable and caused grief that’s been even more painful for people as so many have been unable to offer comfort, support to families who are mourning.  There’s been the loss of milestones that on top of not being able to experience those things, people have guilt for even feeling badly over when compared to those other losses…  which is not helpful either.  No one is saying that not being able to celebrate Graduation is the same as losing a loved one to COVID.  But no one said we should be comparing those things in the first place.   Both are things that cause pain and sadness, which people are entitled to mourn in their respective ways.  Then there are the losses of freedom, of security, of normalcy that seemed to take us by surprise – and left people isolated, tense, anxious, lonely – and afraid.

If you’re experiencing any or all of those – first off, you’re not alone.  You’re in good company.  Every one of us has experienced some or all of those things.  Second, thank God you’re here – thank God we’re all here.  It’s just good for us to be together, to safely find ways of being together and breaking out of the isolation we’ve experienced.

It’s helpful to remember “Where we were” not just to mourn what has been lost – but hopefully with a better appreciation of what really matters.   For me personally, some of the things that I was stressing over a year ago seem incredibly foolish and I’m sorry I wasted any time or energy on them.   And pausing for a moment in humility and reflection to get a sense of “where we are” right now, hopefully, brings awareness and gratitude for the things that are important in our lives – the things that we love… and even more, a better sense of what deserves our love.

While these thoughts can be challenging, they are actually quite perfect for Ash Wednesday and this season of Lent.  They really should be something that is front and center for us every year on this day.   To boldly ask does God come first in my life?  The fragility of life that we’ve seen, the ashes we receive are reminders of the reverence and awe we should have for the gift of life, recognizing without the breath of God without which – all we would be is a bunch of ashes.    Second to God, what should be of importance is – our souls – our own personal souls and those of everyone else.  After a year where what we could or could not do, where we could or could not go was severely mandated, we’re reminded that there is no mandate on our own free will, what we choose to do in drawing close to God or not.  So as we think over this past year, Did we choose to pray even when frustrated… maybe to live-stream a Mass when we couldn’t come… to find some space and place for prayer in the midst of life being upended.   Did I resist that temptation to give into some sin, especially as I’m feeling a lot of complicated things but resist that because of my love for God?   Those help to demonstrate whether love for my soul has been a priority or not.

Did I find a way to help my family, my friends, my neighbors -even being socially distanced, or isolated or did I use this as an excuse to go further into myself?

More than likely, we’ve all had some successes and setbacks.  This is why these scriptures are good news:  St. Paul tells us be reconciled to God …- now is a very acceptable time… now is the day of salvation.  The past is the past… the Lord wants to meet us here and now.  Jesus gives us three ways we can make that a reality whether we’re socially distanced and isolated or not – to Fast, to Pray, to give Alms.   Fasting from food – the Church asks us to limit our eating to one meatless meal today and Good Friday and then refrain from meat every Friday… that’s a pretty low bar – which hopefully we find possible to follow.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t and shouldn’t do something more.  That’s not to starve ourselves or put ourselves and our health at danger… nor is it to punish me but as a way of saying this food, this drink – or this thing that I enjoy, I’m sacrificing it as a way of saying- it’s not more important than God.  Prayer – how can we give God more of our time and our affection.  And while things are still far from normal – we can’t let that be an excuse not to pray.  If you’re able to go shopping, or a restaurant, or a gym – you can go to Church for Mass.  If not and you’re able to zoom for class, you can live-stream a Mass.  And there are countless podcasts and prayer Apps that help give resources, tools, and assistance many of which are free. We just have to make that decision and yes fight that temptation of not doing something.   And Almsgiving – who can we help… who can we reach out to.  The number of people who are suffering and hurting seems to have grown a great deal.  And yes some need financial support which is what we traditionally think of with almsgiving.  But who’s a friend or family member who maybe hasn’t left their homes who’s isolated and alone and filled with fear that a visit, or an actual letter in the mail or doing something thoughtful can help.  The point is to come out of ourselves and to do something that helps someone else.

Where we were a year ago… where we are today are only important in our decision on what do we do with those realities…. Where do we want to go?   The fact that we’re here is a great first step in acknowledging our desire to be cleansed of all that is ashen, dusty… to put to death all that displaces God from being center in my life, all that disfigures or distorts my soul or makes me inattentive to the souls of everyone else… to lay all that at the cross of Jesus and experience the promise of His Resurrection both now and all eternity.