Saint Meinrad Seminary & School of Theology

Formation and Education for the Life of the Church

Ash Wednesday Homily

Ash Wednesday

Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.

The mandate seems very clear and it is one we encounter each year at this time, even if the time is a little bit later this year. Better late than never, an adage which of course is not always true.

Perhaps this Lent will be different. Perhaps we can authentically find something in this Lent to enlighten us, to stimulate us in our faith, because the season is, after all, a question of faith.

What is the status of your faith? We all like to think that we are good men and women of faith, that we are engaging in parishes that are full of faith, that we are part of a Church that is the epitome of faith.

It would be nice, if only it were true. Which is not to say that we are not those things; we are, of course. But we also know that we can be half-hearted, milky, watered down. We can be tip-toers, fearful people who don't want to muck things up too much. In other words, sometimes in the practice of our faith, even here, we can be exactly those people that our Lord so strenuously opposed. The lukewarm and the cautious.

Brothers and sisters, as we come into this Lenten season, this season of renewal, I think it's time to get a bit out of control. I think we need it. If our work here, our formation here, means anything, it is imperative that a radical conversion be in the works.

We need to get revolutionary because we have all become too complacent.

We need to get a bit wild in this Lent because we have been lulled into the lie that our whole lives are not dependent upon the faith we profess here.

Is this chapel just a hideout or a temporary place of refuge or do we find our deepest meaning here, our whole selves here?

I believe we need something a bit out of the ordinary because the world is going to continually tell us that our faith is only something quaint and accessorizing.

Now listen again to the words of the prophet:

Even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.

Can our Lent be a meaningless, mealy-mouthed event if we take seriously the words of the prophet?

Must it not be a life-changing event? Even for us here, even for experts in the faith?

Let's go back now to the words of Jesus in the Gospel:

When you pray

When you fast

When you give alms

Please notice, in Jesus' world there are no conditionals. He does not say, if, he says when but we often think of Lent as a time for if's and not when's.

What is Lent in the popular imagination? I propose that it is an unbridled season of often misconstrued and quite often unrealized, possibility.

What you are giving up for Lent?

How can I get out of that?

What are the laws that govern these practices?

Outdated laws

Silly practices

Useless SYMBOLISM in the face of a call to radical conversion.

We do not take the call of God seriously even in this environment and we are bewildered that lukewarmness and a real lack of commitment exist, out there.

O certainly, spiritual trumpets are blown, faces are besmirched with the dirt of resentment, room doors are flung open to display the flagrant acts of asceticism taking place within.

We commit ourselves to our good works and fail.

We submit our robust flesh to the relentlessness of exercise programs and fail.

We strive to be the most abstemious and we fail.

And in all of this unheard of sacrifice and heroic neglect of self, what happens?

Nothing, of course

And all of this is accompanied by the rhetoric and cadences of a spiritual tokenism.

We sigh

We cry

We try

Here is the question I ask this community of faith every year …

Where is this Lent leading us?

What do we want to BE on the other side of Lent?

What destination are we aiming for in this annual pilgrimage of discipleship?

How might this Lent be truly a time of difference?

Remember the words of the prophet?

Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.

What if we could learn to give to others and experience the pinch a bit rather than scraping the bottom of the barrel of life for a couple of coins to hurl in the general direction of the, in our estimation, probably undeserving poor.
 
What if our alms cut us, hurt us, caused us to feel in our flesh the needs of the poor and the downcast? What if we could learn to give the alms of unfulfilled love?

And what about our prayer? What if, instead of the endless litany of this or that, we learned to weep pitifully in the presence of the Lord? What if we could pray in those early hours of the morning without looking around to judge those who were there or not there?

What if our prayer could truly open the chambers of our hearts to seek new ways to learn to close our mouths? What if our prayer could bring others to Christ, our prayer rather than our collection of beer? What if our prayer could be so attractive that our brothers and here could be converted to the power of the Gospel, because I can assure you, we all need to be converted to the power of the Gospel. What if we talked more to our neighbors about the joy of prayer and less about the misery of seminary life?

Then we might find ourselves gaining softness in those open hearts. Then we might find ourselves able to nakedly reveal our struggles and pains. Then we might learn to love with an unfettered love. Then we might become true priests of the crucified and risen Christ.

What if we could learn how to truly fast, to deny ourselves those things which really mean very little in the larger scheme, our attitudes and opinions?

What if our fasting led to something rather than just misery, what if it led to new ways of living and new paths of conversion?

Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.

To me, that is a revolutionary message, that is the invitation to a season of transformation, a season of real growth and change. It is a season in which everything must be rethought and conversion be permanent, not a tokenistic giving up.

That rending and returning draws us ever closer to the promise of the resurrection

What do we expect to do on Easter Sunday? Do we expect to rise with Christ victorious over sin and death? Do we expect to rise with Christ victorious over ourselves? Do we expect to rise with Christ over the ashes of our sins? Do we expect to rise new and glorious men and women?

Or do we expect to just return to our old ways, the damnable malaise of a conventional faith?

Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.

Fr. Denis Robinson, OSB, president-rector of Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, posts his homilies, rector's conferences and other talks on this page.