Ash Wednesday
February 22, 2012

Lent is once more here. Once again, the Church, through the liturgical year, is educating us, reminding us, helping us move on to “higher ground,” sort of, and seek for higher things. Ash Wednesday ushers us into the holy season, a forty-day period of preparation for the Paschal Triduum, that leads to the “highest point” of our moral and spiritual striving – the Resurrection of the Lord!

But before we can reach for the stars, we need to look at where we are. We need to do a reality check, and realize where our feet are planted. And in case you have forgotten it, they are planted solidly on terra firma – on earth, that tradition calls the “valley of tears.”

But there is more than just tears to deal with as we enter into the holy season of Lent. Let today’s readings tell us … The prophet Joel reminds us of the need to “do penance,” on account of our sins. But he takes pains to define that penance … It is not just for show, not just for compliance. He tells us to “rend our hearts, not our garments.” And what is the spirit behind such an act of penance? Our response after the first reading clinches it … No other reason but our sins, our own, and that of others: “Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.”

We are in terra firma alright. Just look at us now … so broken and divided by so many issues. We are once again a fractious people, torn by so many conflicting interests, so many contradictory allegiances, and loyalties. Like the Corinthians of old, we take sides. We form cliques. We form alliances.

But though there is nothing inherently wrong in taking sides, the problem that we see as we journey through this valley of tears, is simply this: sin enters the picture. Selfishness comes into play. Self-centeredness and all sorts of personal agenda get factored in. Just look at our dysfunctional politics of patronage and personalities!

We are a sinful people. We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God!

But today, Ash Wednesday, as shown by the symbol of the ashes, we are reminded: “Be reconciled to God!” “We beg you not to receive the grace of God in vain … Now is the day of salvation.”

Today! … Here and now … Here below, in this valley of tears. We cannot think of going to higher ground unless we deal  with the reality here below. And what do we see here below? Let the Lord Himself remind us …
He talks about the need to be “on guard against performing religious acts for people to see.” He reminds us about not “blowing a horn when giving alms.” He tells us about not “behaving like the hypocrites who love to stand and pray in synagogues or on street corners in order to be noticed.”

Guess what He speaks about … He talks to you and me, all prone to merely scratch the surface, and just go for the externals just for show. He reminds us of our tendency to be superficial. In such a state of affairs, there seems to be no point in reaching for the stars, when we are really down here in the dumps and caught up in the mud of sinfulness and selfishness.

The ashes are there to remind us … that we are dust, that we are nothing more than lowly humus – soil, and that to this same dust, we shall all return one day. And when we do … when we acknowledge the state we all are in, and when we do our best to reach out and cry out for help and forgiveness, that is the time, God’s mercy and compassion in Christ Jesus, our Lord, comes to lift us up, onwards to the stars, onward to the higher things, onward to heaven that is our true home.

And so we pray the Lord, “protect us in our struggle against evil.” (Opening Prayer)