Ash Wednesday (Joel 2:12-18; Matthew 6:1-18)
In the old days, thousands of years ago, when something really bad happened, the chief priest of the Hebrew community would stand before the entire religious congregation and rend his garment. He would tear his robe in two. It was the ultimate statement of shock and regret. When Jesus was on trial before the Sanhedrin, the chief priest stood up, accused Jesus of blasphemy, and rended his garment, tore his robe.
Today in the first reading, the prophet Joel tells us to rend not our garments, but our hearts, to tear our hearts in two, to break our hearts, to say we have completely failed and start all over, to renounce sin, wipe the slate clean and return to God with all our broken hearts, weeping, mourning, fasting and praying. These are not happy images. We regret what we have done and not done, and mourn those being killed anywhere and everywhere. We recognize our complicity with the sin and violence of the whole world.
Joel says blow the trumpet, gather the people, call the assembly, and proclaim a fast. Last Thursday, the Pope did just that and called upon all one billion Catholics around the world to fast for peace today, that the United States would not bomb Iraq. The pope asks us all to pray and fast “that the world will find effective ways short of war to secure justice, increase security and promote genuine peace for all of God’s people.” This morning he said, “Everyone has to knowingly assume their responsibility and make a common effort to spare humanity another dramatic conflict. By conversion of heart, penance and solidarity, we will become true peacemakers both in our own families and in the world.”
So today, the universal church invites us to repent of every sin, not what cultures, governments or empires define as sin, since they always try to play God and decide what is right or wrong, but what the Gospel of Jesus defines as sin–selfishness, hatred, arrogance, pride, apathy, greed, injustice, idolatry, violence, and war. We turn back to God and take up the Gospel way of unconditional nonviolent love, as St. Paul says, to “be reconciled to God.” Then we can begin the works of repentance, as Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, to share what we have with those in need, to fast and to pray in our inner room in secret to God.
So I invite you today and in the days ahead to do something new and beautiful for God, to fast for peace, to pray for our conversion to God and for peace in the world, to pray that all the killings around the world will stop, that God will relent and give us a miracle of global transformation. So I invite you to come to the Stations of the Cross and the bible study series, to spend more time with Jesus every day in silent prayer and Gospel study, to deepen your relationship with Jesus, to deny yourself, take up the cross and walk with him on the road of love, to be part of his work for peace.
As we come forward to receive the ashes, I invite you to enter this holy season of Lent, to rend your heart, to pray for the grace of repentance from violence and selfishness, for yourself and the whole world, and to renew your discipleship to the nonviolent Jesus and his Gospel.