This comedian named Artie talked about how he and his friend Anthony were involved with illegal gambling, betting on hockey games with a bookie.  Every week, they would make bets and meet some middleman to exchange money at a local McDonald’s.  Anthony discovered that the bookie didn’t realize that certain games were played in the afternoon, so he was able to get his bets in knowing the winner, thereby cheating for 6 weeks in a row.  At week 7, the middle man called Artie and Anthony and said he wouldn’t be meeting them this week but that the bookie himself was coming, and that they better be there.  These two had never met the guy before – it’s a bookie, so he rarely wanted to be seen in public… but they found him sitting in the back corner booth where they had their weekly meetings, seeing this huge, middle-aged man sitting alone eating a quarter-pound with cheese and french fries.  As soon as they sit down, he starts launching into them that he figured out what they had done, what they had gotten away with, and if Anthony ever cheated him again, the bookie promised that he would find him, he would rip hi throat out and continued I’m going to find your kids, I’m going to find your cousins and do the same to them.  Their terror and fear turned though, as the comedian and his friend lowered their heads and tried not to laugh because as this guy was screaming murderous threats at them, all the while having this huge ashen cross on his big bald head – which made them realize it was Ash Wednesday   And the more they sat there, the harder it was for them not to lose it – that here they are talking about illegal gambling, paying off bets, the guy making murderous threats all the while the bookie has this big Ashen cross on his forehead.  After the lunacy of that whole experience, when Artie and Anthony were finally done getting yelled at by the bookie and laughed at the entire thing, Anthony said, “I didn’t even know it was Ash Wednesday, we gotta go get our ashes…”

Thanks so much for stopping by to read this homily for ASH WEDNESDAY February 14, 2024.  I appreciate your sharing this 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

That’s helps illustrate why Ash Wednesday is one of the best and worst times to be a priest.

It’s terrific that people are actively seeking out the Church in greater numbers than most other days of the year.  But there can be such a disconnect on what this is all about, what this means.  And that’s not entirely the fault of the people who come.  Some churches have helped perpetuate the confusion even offering what they call “Ashes to go,” where they stand on street corners or train stations and just give ashes out.  So there are no scripture readings or prayers, just tracing of dead burnt palm branches on one’s head on one’s way to work or class.

If people haven’t been taught the significance of this custom of receiving ashes on some random Wednesday in February (which this year happens also to be Valentine’s Day), If we help perpetuate that by just giving it without any thought, explanation, or prayer – it’s not as shocking that an illegal bookie would stop to get ashes on his forehead as he’s out on his collections and making threats to people.

That truth most impressed me years ago, during one of my first years as a priest.  It had been a busy Ash Wednesday- we had a 7 AM Mass, and this was the 7 PM Mass.  It had been a long marathon of Masses and meeting with people all day in between those two.  As I was  distributing communion, this guy came up to me, and when I said “The Body of Christ,” he responded, “Oh, I don’t want that; I just came for the ashes…”  I don’t have much of a poker face.  But thankfully for this guy, holding the Body of Christ in my hands, I was able to calmly say, “I’ll give them to you after Mass…” He quickly added, whether out of embarrassment or just seeing the look on my face “Oh, I’ll take that too,” to which I said, “Oh, that’s okay, you’ve made it clear you didn’t want this… but come see me after Mass.”  If he did get ashes that day, he must’ve gone to someone else.  As justifiably upset as I was with that interaction that day, I’ve been upset about it ever since.  But for different reasons.   Twenty years ago, I was insulted and angered.  But having talked and listened to people, I better understand it.

I think for a lot of people the ashes probably seem more accessible and relatable.  It’s a great common denominator.  Anyone can get the ashes, whether you are Catholic or not, whether you in a state of grace or not, it doesn’t matter.   They are made of some of the same elements that humans beings are: carbon,  calcium, and magnesium.  So in a world where there’s so much polarizing division, where people are surrounding themselves only with those whom they agree with – this very earthy substance seems one of the few areas of shared agreement.   Even some of the words used to distribute them aren’t controversial.  One of the forms used is “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” In a world that’s increasingly rejecting God, most atheists would even agree with that.  In fact that’s basically their whole philosophy in one sentence.

Most people don’t know that those words go to the earliest of scriptures, the first book of the Old Testament – the book of Genesis, when our first parents, Adam and Eve, rejected God, believed the lies of the devil telling them God wasn’t trustworthy and promising if they just listened to him the voice of the devil, they could become gods themselves.  After they foolishly fell for that lie, they found that reality very accurate – without God, that’s all they were: dust and ash.

Sadly, I think many people are stuck believing that’s the end of the story.  Whether they have fallen away from practicing their Catholic faith or never really learned it – even some who do come every Sunday might not realize that sometimes the way they live kind of demonstrates that they think all we are is dust and ash.  That’s why we see so many actively maximizing pleasure, minimize pain, and just care for themselves.

Whatever it is that brought you here today – Even if it’s just out of tradition or custom that caught your attention, saying “I need to get ashes” is a good thing.  Maybe that came from the faith and devotion of your parents, grandparents, or other ancestors… Maybe it’s desiring to belong and feeling like this is a day to check in, just in case Jesus is truly the way, the truth, and the life you feel like you wanted just to pop in and say to God, I’m here…remember I got my ashes…

If that’s you, can I just tell you that God is real, God is not mad at you or hate you, God loves you and is so happy you are here.  And He wants to work with all those maybes – and a few others, like when you think that maybe there is more to life than passing pleasures that always seem to promise a lot and never come remotely close to fulfilling them.  Maybe there’s something greater than trying to get wealthy or popular or to be powerful.   Maybe I’m more than just a pile of ashes.

Because you are.  There’s no ifs, buts or maybes when it comes to that.

That’s the good news of this day.  Jesus came to live and to go to the cross for us to demonstrate the lengths that God would go for us.   God never intended for us to revert back to the dust of the earth.  Even when in our foolishness we continue to choose to follow everyone but God, even in our arrogance when we actively reject Him, He doesn’t hold grudges, He doesn’t get angry and lash out in turn that He’s done with us… He still looks at me and you as someone beautiful, someone He carefully, intentionally, lovingly took ashes, breathed His life into them and created me and you…

That’s what this day is all about my friends.  Everytime you catch a glimpse of those ashes on your head or see them on someone else, yes to remember on our own that’s all we are.  But we’re not all on our own.  We don’t have to live under that lie.  After the death on the Cross, Jesus rose from the dead and promised us we could too.  That isn’t my invitation, that’s Jesus’ invitation to each of us today.  To make this Ash Wednesday more than just about getting that sign of death on my forehead, but seeing in that sign the hope that is mine if I grasp it, grasp Him.  To see in that Eucharistic Host, the very body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ being made real and present in our midst.  He’s as real and present here as He was 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem, or in Jerusalem.  And He wants you to know and experience Him… His love for you personally here and now.  He sees you, He knows you, He cares for you.  Let Him.  If you’re not Catholic or it’s been a long time since you’ve been to Mass and you can’t receive Him at communion today, that’s okay…  Listen to that longing in your heart – listen to His invitation to you to start anew.

I’m happy to meet you for confession after Mass, or any day  – we have confessions every day, and I live right here so I’m always around.  Please join us or your local parishes and take advantage of all the opportunities to make the next 40 days truly life-changing – this life of yours now and the eternal life that awaits all of us.