Ash Wednesday

March 9, 2011

Photos by Louise Kelly/Herald. Cardinal DiNardo distributed ashes and celebrated the mid-day Ash Wednesday Mass at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart.

Click below to listen to Cardinal DiNardo's Ash Wednesday homily at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart:

Audio Player

"I will rise and go to my father and tell him: "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you." (Luke 15:18-19)
March 9 is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the 40-day Lenten Season, the period of repentance and renewal for the celebration of the 50 days of Easter. These 90 days represent a quarter of the calendar year, a large tithe of the secular calendar given over totally to deepening our faith and our obedience of faith to the One God in Three Persons.

Lent-Easter is also a yearly focus on Baptism. The many catechumens are preparing for that Sacrament of Initiation, along with Confirmation and First Eucharist. The rest of us are re-examining our Baptism and the possible shipwrecks of faith that have overcome us and need restoration and reconciliation. We all need to arise and hasten to the Father's embrace – an embrace made possible by the sending of His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ: God's face turned towards us in the Eternal Word Made Flesh, the One who through the Holy Spirit grants us living waters of grace (3rd Sunday of Lent), new light for our blindness (4th Sunday of Lent) and new life for those of us in the tomb of distortions caused by our sins (5th Sunday of Lent).

The ashes that mark our foreheads on the first day of Lent are a sign: We must turn away from sin and be faithful anew to the Gospel. Hasten to the Father's embrace. He gives us Christ in whom we overcome temptation (1st Sunday of Lent) and in whom we will be transformed (2nd Sunday of Lent).

Lent is to be marked by deeper prayer and more time for prayer, by fasting and abstaining from food and other good things that then shock us into awareness of our emptiness without God, and by sharing our treasure with others, most especially the poor, the unborn, the fragile and unwanted, the oppressed and the stranger. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving: these three are traditional and effective "strategies" for the Lenten season.

Each year I try to emphasize one particular aspect of our Lenten observance and comment on its importance. My target this year is the Sacrament of Penance.

Repentance is part of the very message of Jesus Christ, present from the opening words of His public life in Galilee: "Repent and believe in the Gospel!" Jesus came to call sinners, not the righteous; His parables indicate that everyone needs repentance, perhaps especially those who seem righteous in their own eyes. St. Paul's diagnosis is that all have fallen short of the mark and are sinners. We are justified by the grace of God in the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ that takes place in each of us by faith in Christ and by Baptism into His death and resurrection.

From the beginning of the second century, however, Christian disciples have recognized the need to bear fruit continually. Post-Baptismal sin was a matter of great concern in the Early Church and it looked to the extraordinary gift of Reconciliation given to the Apostles in the Upper Room on Easter Sunday night, when the risen Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit upon them for the work of forgiveness. That event was a further catalyst in seeing the origin of Sacramental Confession.
Repentance and forgiveness are deeply personal and simultaneously deeply communitarian and social, or to use a "big" word, deeply "ecclesial." We are involved in repentance and forgiveness as personal members of the Body of Christ, the Church. Sin and forgiveness involves "me" and Jesus but always involves more than "me and Jesus." That is why sacramental Penance or Confession has brought the Church into the action of our being forgiven and renewed when we have sinned. We are only baptized once; Penance is the sacrament of a constant "second plank" given to us after our various shipwrecks, after we stray from the Lord and injure our friendship with Him and our relationship to the Church. From the beginning of the Church, there has been a need for an "apostolic witness" to receive our confession of sins and to grant absolution in the person of Christ. That witness has always been the bishop and the priest.

Sacramental Penance or Confession is a very great gift, an astounding act of mercy on the part of Christ towards the members of His Body. In the course of the ages, the manner of its celebration has changed but the essential requirements – of Confession and sorrow for sin, a firm purpose of amendment, a judgment of mercy by absolution from the apostolic witness and a willingness to remain in repentance out of gratitude for the gift – have been constants in the Church's life of grace.

This remains true to this day. We are obliged to confess serious or mortal sins since these distortions keep us from sacramental communion. But even less serious or venial sins weaken our life in Christ. When we bring them to sacramental Confession we expose them to the light of Christ, a light of forgiveness that illuminates areas of our life that are still in need of greater vigor or are places of mediocrity that weaken our Christian witness. In such instances the Sacrament of Reconciliation acts as a great spiritual discipline, a recognition that we need God's grace and are never "self-sufficient" (a great danger of people who live in any comfort or security in our age, since it is a false security).

I highly encourage all our faithful people in this Archdiocese to avail themselves of the Sacrament of Penance during Lent and to continue its practice more regularly throughout the year. It is a marvelous means of grace, a way of sober self-assessment in our over-hyped culture of personal narcissism. It also reminds us that we are not alone but always members of the Church. Some people are made "uncomfortable" by the confession of their sins to the priest and might comment that they can confess their sins directly to the Lord. Besides the fact that Christ did not arrange things that way in establishing the gift of sacramental Penance as one of the Sacraments of the Church, it is also symptomatic of our time that such a view of Christ and forgiveness is overly individualistic and fails to recognize the harm our sins cause to other members of the Body of Christ. No sin is that "invisible" to the Body of Christ that it does not harm some other members of the Church.

Christ through His Church invites us to a healing remedy, a sacrament that needs to grow in importance in this local Church and throughout our country. It is an instructive meditation to watch the "public confessions" on television talk shows by the various "guests" collected therein while simultaneously watching the sometimes less than impressive lines waiting for the more effective and more personally respectful "confessions" that are celebrated in our churches. Talk show hosts and audiences cannot really grant the deeper kind of reconciliation and healing for our sins that Christ gives us personally through the Sacrament of Penance. Hasten to the Father's embrace!