For those, like me, who’s been long waiting the newest season of Ted Lasso (which, if you haven’t heard, here’s an Ash Wednesday bonus gift for you – it’s coming March 15) – it seemed like the-powers-that-be behind Apple TV tried to deflect people’s impatience and demands for news about that show’s return with a new program that started streaming at the end of January called Shrinking.  With a pretty all-star cast and made by some of the same creative team behind Ted Lasso it seemed worth a watch.

Thanks so much for stopping by to read my homily for the ASH WEDNESDAY – February 22, 2023, 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- Father Jim

It’s basically a story about Jimmy (played by Jason Segel), who is a therapist who works with two other therapists Paul (played by Harrison Ford) and Gaby (Jessica Williams).  What makes things unique in Shrinking is that the therapists aren’t depicted as these perfect professionals who have all the answers – – – and if only their patients weren’t so resistant and reluctant they could get better.  Not at all.  In the opening scenes, Jimmy is in his pool, late in the night (or actually early in the morning) obviously under the influence of many substances with women who are similarly high/drunk and uninhibited.  You quickly learn he has a 17-year-old trying to sleep inside and get ready for her next day of High School as Father and Daughter are finding very different ways of dealing with the tragic death of their wife and mother.  His fellow therapists very quickly you see their put-together facades drop where they go from the concerned colleagues who keep trying to maintain their professionalism and clinical protocols as their own crises emerge – Paul learning he has Parkinson’s Disease and hasn’t shared the news with any of his family and Gaby finally having to admit that her happy marriage was anything but and in fact, she’s getting a divorce.   All of them are dealing with these major messes and Jimmy aggressively is trying to get them to follow his lead.  Where they drop all the clinical distance and are real and open about their realities in dealing with their patients.  He advocates radical honesty – to tell their patients what they really think and share what messes they are dealing with themselves.

Watching that show the other night it hit me that is something we’re all doing today.  One of the unique things about Ash Wednesday, one of the reasons I think people feel for some reason more comfortable coming to Mass today than most other days of the year, is that Ash Wednesday deals with radical honesty.  And at least for one day a year, greater numbers of people feel the need to see it and hear it.

To See the dirty ashes on our foreheads.  Talk about no facades… The dirty ash front and center on our foreheads is hard to miss and even more jarring in our heavily edited, perfectly lit, cropped, and edited world.  A few decades ago there was a fear that people got ashes on their foreheads for the wrong reason – as a sign to say I’m proud to be Catholic.  It doesn’t feel like that is something that’s much of a concern nowadays as the culture and society seem more hostile than ever to those who are members of faiths from the Judeo-Christian tradition.  We see these ashes in our reflections and in our fellow Catholics.  And every time we do, we are reminded of our mortality.  That our earthly time is limited.  That we did not summon ourselves into being.  That on our own – were God to remove His breath of life from us, all we would be is a pile of ashes.  We see that…

We hear in these scriptures reminders of those realities that our world, our culture, and our inner selves constantly want to deny. Tempting us to believe lies about ourselves, and our destinies.  Leading us down dead ends of selfishness and self-centeredness that deep within are at the root of so much depression, and despair.

But with those truths and this radical honesty, we hear a timeless message.  God’s word on Ash Wednesday is a hope-filled message that is timeless – in a beautifully unique way.  That first reading today is from the prophet Joel.  Who is beautiful and unique in a particular way from all the scriptures in the Old and New Testament.  For most of the scripture, we find historical facts behind them.  We know the places, locations of most of the places, and people encountered.  These are not myths or stories, the scriptures are backed by scholarship where we know the day and age they come from, and information about the sacred authors that God had enlisted and inspired.

Joel is an exception. This prophet has confounded scholars who aren’t sure if he came 1000 or 300 years before Christ.  That’s a pretty big deal.  The references he makes are kind of unclear that can point to a bunch of different historical facts.  Yet his voice was so pleading was so sincere and convicting that Jews and Christians have found it incredibly compelling.  For thousands of years, they could hear the voice of God saying to His people this timeless message: return to me with your whole heart with fasting and weeping and mourning… rend your hearts, not your garments.

As much as this message is spoken to people of every day and age, for us Catholics, these words greet us as we begin this sacred season of Lent.  St. Paul kind of moves us along though in that second reading.  He is also pleading to us who find ourselves here today – Not to let this just be another Ash Wednesday, to not just go through the motions, to not just to see and hear things but to make Now – the acceptable time – Now – the day of salvation.  Where we are moved from receiving these ashes these stark reminders and align ourselves with Jesus who saves us from these realities and saves us from ourselves.  Jesus invites us to be with Him these 40 days as He spent 40 days in the desert with His Heavenly Father.  To follow His example to fast, pray, and give- which are all ways of stripping away how we can be so maniacally focused on our wants, our needs, our pleasures and by saying no to them – by making intentional time and space in our crowded and busy lives, we can come to know and love Jesus deeper than when we started.

Note that – that we all come to know and love Jesus deeper than when we started.  That was another thing that hit me watching that program the other night – that I, Father Jim could relate with Jimmy the therapist from Shrinking.  I’m in the same boat as you are.  I need this season to pray, fast, and give… I need to go to confession… I need that intentional time to be with Jesus right here at Montclair as we go into this spiritual desert.  People sometimes think that because the priest is up there wearing these beautiful vestments we think we’re better than everyone else just telling others what to do.  Which couldn’t be further from the truth.  These vestments are about Jesus, and His priesthood, which is beautiful.  I still pray in awe and wonder how, and why Jesus chose me to share.  Because I know what a screw-up I am.  That He works in and with and through me, in spite of me.  And that His priesthood covers in a sense, covers the sinful man underneath…  The truth is I’m a sinner just like everyone else is here.   This is why I need these Ashes and to see and hear these words today.

I thank you for being here today and hope you’ll join me, join us as we continue this journey that starts today with Ash Wednesday through the next 40 days of Lent to Easter, to encounter and experience Jesus in a deeper and new way.