Welcome to Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent! A few years ago when at a friend’s home, one of their sons had a book on the kitchen table – well he had a bunch of books on the kitchen table which resulted in some drama, but one of them was titled “When I was your age.” Actually when I picked that book up and started leafing through it and laughing (not so much to myself) that was when his mom started yelling about her son leaving his stuff all over the place, so it was my fault, but I digress.
Thanks so much for stopping by to read my homily for ASH WEDNESDAY – March 2, 2022, for sharing it on your social media posts and your feedback and comments… I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE. May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing Sincerely in Christ – Father Jim
What made me laugh was just the title “When I was your age.” I joked to my friends “I never knew my father wrote a book” Because that was a favorite phrase of his. I don’t know how many times when my brothers and I were growing up and maybe we would complain about something. Like having to walk home from school that would set him off. “When I was your age” as he talked about having to walk 20 miles in a blizzard, stopping to save a cat stuck in a tree for his mother’s best friend while chopping wood for the fireplace at home (mind you, as much as he tried to depict himself as Paul Bunyon in the wild frontier, he grew up in Newark and Nutley NJ). Italians like to call this “the suffering Olympics” to see who could “top” the other in stories of how much harder life was, how much tougher they had it compared to the generation that followed them.
In my time here over the last 15 years here, I know I’ve done the same to my beloved students – I’m still jealous of the fact that you guys have the internet. When I was your age – our “google” was going to the library and finding this thing called the Readers Guide to Periodic literature, finding micro-fische of magazines and hoping it actually had something to do with the topic you had to write a paper on… When I was your age…
I’ll be honest I’ve kind of stopped those comparisons. Because in short – after the last two years, you’d probably win the argument. Life is tough. Things these last two years have been really hard. I don’t know how many times and in how many ways we’ve been told we’re living through something unprecedented, something “historic.” I can’t imagine having to shelter in place, isolate for days, weeks, months at a time as a high school student or college student. It wasn’t too pretty for me as a 48-year-old priest, so trying to put myself into your shoes, at a time in life when your trying to figure life out, figure out what all this means, figure out where you’re going, what you’re going to do… Even before the pandemic, there was already this crazy additional pressure that existed. Social media where you’re constantly bombarded by messages that make you doubt how popular you are, how happy you are, how good you look, how good you are… – and just this non-stop barrage of information. Where we seemingly can’t get a break from it all. It’s too much. And I think for most of us, we really thought that this Academic Year was going to be so great and it’s just really been a lot tougher.
This brings us to Ash Wednesday. And again, it’s awesome that you’re here. But did you ever wonder what is it that brings all of us out in great numbers to Ash Wednesday? It’s funny, as Catholics we’re obligated to go to Mass every Sunday… it’s considered a sin if we miss Sunday Mass – but there are more people that come out on Ash Wednesday, a day which isn’t an obligation. Why is that?
I think there’s something real, something very gritty and real about Ash Wednesday. We see the dirty ashes, they’re ugly. And on some level, people feel comfortable getting them because they seem relatable. Receiving Jesus’ body and blood in the Eucharist is such a massive miracle that’s made real and present at every Mass – that’s the space of faith, where our heart and mind and soul are confronted by this great mystery of our faith.
Ashes don’t require that introspection. Life is tough. And so all of us can relate to the ugliness, and there’s something comforting in our recognizing that it’s tough for everyone, no matter what age we are… Even when you think about how Ashes are made. These were Palm branches that we used on Palm Sunday when we recall how Jesus enters Jerusalem and the massive crowds that come to greet and welcome Jesus and they want him to be their ruler and king – they took the branches down and were waving them. Kind of like at Soccer matches when people wave those towels for their team – that’s what they were doing. Those same crowds waving those branches screaming HOSANNA – 5 days later were screaming Crucify Him. We burn those branches because we see how meaningless those cheers really were when Jesus doesn’t go along with what the world expected, what people wanted.
Life is tough. It always has been. But why it’s so awesome you’re here today is that someplace in your heart and soul, you heard the Lord inviting you to be here. Jesus inviting us to follow Him. These 40 days of Lent are a reminder based on Jesus going off into the desert for 40 days – to Pray and Fast. It’s remarkable when you think about it, that Jesus, God Himself needed to get away from the crowds, the ordinary day-to-day distractions, the routine. That Jesus himself needed to pray – well he wanted to pray, He wanted to be alone with His Father and our Father and the Holy Spirit. And He fasted because He wanted his words to be united with his entire being. He needed this time to reflect on the brokenness of the world, the hurts, the pains that one person that he loves does to another person that he loves. He needed to be away from the noise to clearly focus on how God Himself would conquer all the hatred, all the evil, all the sin, all the death – by dying on a cross and rising from the dead.
And that’s why what we do today is such an important first step. The ugliness, the dirtiness, the brokenness of these ashes which so often reflect what’s going on in our world, in our nation, on our campus, even more – in our own lives. We’re not here to commiserate or compare ourselves thinking how much harder things are now or then… Instead, Jesus invites us to leave all that behind and follow Him. To make our own “desert” – by making time for Prayer.. By fasting… by giving.
Our natural impulses kind of want to reject that. Life is tough, Prayer – Fasting – Giving are tough – do we really need to make things tougher? Jesus promises us that if we dare to believe, enter into these practices for the next 40 days, we recognize how that ashen cross leads us past the brokenness, past the ugliness, even past death itself as we start to allow Him to walk with us now, and share in His Resurrected life now and for all eternity.