Homily for Ash Wednesday

18 Feb 2015

Homily for Ash Wednesday,
St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 18 February 2015
Welcome all to today’s Mass as we begin the Church’s penitential season of Lent. Today we impart ashes as a sign of our repentance and turning back to the Lord. We also launch Project Compassion for 2015 as a sign of our generosity and turning to our neighbour in need. Eric and Ma from Tutu Rural Training Centre, Fiji, will speak to us about this briefly after Communion.
Please be generous this Lent to Project Compassion.

In addition to corporal almsgiving there is the spiritual charity of praying for those in need, and I encourage you to pray for Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, the two Australians on death row in Indonesia, and for their families, that they may yet be saved from premature death, and that the God of love may comfort them and provide them hope.

Homily for Ash Wednesday,
St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 18 February 2015

Ash Wednesday 1983. Clear skies and rising temperatures in the drought-stricken South-East combined with a cold front in the Bight to draw hot air southwards from the centre of Australia. Temperatures soared and humidity dropped to zero. By early afternoon hundreds of fires were ablaze; then strong northerly and westerly winds drove the fires in all directions. The fire-fighters were overwhelmed. By the next day 75 people were dead, hundreds of buildings destroyed, thousands of livestock lost, and millions of hectares razed. Many Australians think the name ‘Ash Wednesday’ comes from those fires.

Those of us who receive Lenten ashes each year know it’s a practice going back long before 1983, but the parallels are interesting: for in the Australian bush, fire brings both destruction and regeneration. Eucalypts and many other native plants rely on the heat of bushfires to germinate and on the resultant clearing and new soils for renewal. Just a few days after fire has destroyed our forests, they are already sprouting with fresh green shoots. So, too, the human side of bushfires: we witness not only destruction and grief but self-sacrifice and generosity.

So our Lenten ashes remind us both of human failings and new starts, limitations and potential, mortality and regeneration. Remember that you are dust, dust and ashes, mortal clay, that you are from the earth and will return to the earth, that the bush will reclaim you: for drought and death are its relentless law and the sins that blacken your heart are little deaths that point to your final end. And yet there might be new growth yet to come…

“Come back to me with all your heart, fasting, weeping,” God cries out in our first reading. “Before the altar let the priests lament. Let them say: Spare your people, Lord! Do not make your heritage a thing of shame.” (Joel 2:12, 17) Lent is ‘come back’ time, for Catholics. Even faithful, idealistic people can be distracted or lukewarm. All Israel, all the Church, are called to repentance, not just the big sinners: even little children and old saints repent because all are affected when any member is sinful or suffering.

Our ancient Lenten medicines are prayer, fasting and almsgiving (cf Mt 6:1-6, 16-18). Prayer seeks reconciliation with God, as we face up to our sinful neglect of Him, our unwillingness to share our time and wills with Him, and we seek by better communication to cultivate a better relationship with God. Fasting seeks reconciliation with ourselves, facing up to our sinful obsessions with comfort and self. By a little self-denial we cooperate with God in healing our hearts. We can also pray and fast for various intentions, such as that the hungry may have ‘Food for Life’ and that Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran be shown clemency in Indonesia.

If Lenten prayer reconciles with God and Lenten fasting with ourselves, Lenten charity is about reconciling with our neighbours. We face up to our sinful unwillingness to share our comfort and selves with others. By a little generosity we cooperate with God in healing our relationships. Project Compassion allows us to treat each needy person as if they were Christ (cf. Mt ch 25), feeding Him in the hungry, responding as we would in a bushfire.

Last year nearly $11M was raised for Project Compassion, $1.6M in our archdiocese. Such support enables Caritas to help people like Eric and Ma, from whom we’ll hear after Communion. This year’s Project Compassion theme is ‘Food for Life’. As Pope Francis has pointed out, it’s a scandal that millions are hungry while excess food is thrown away. Last Sunday he said: “In a word: charity [Caritas] cannot be neutral, antiseptic, indifferent, lukewarm or impartial! Charity is infectious, it excites, it risks and it engages!” With your infectious, excited, engaged support, Caritas Australia can work to address the hunger in our world.

The leftover palms from last year’s Palm Sunday have been rendered to ashes so they might herald a new cycle through Lent to the Resurrection. Only through Christ’s ashen passion can we hope a new heart will be created in us; only by His rising phoenix-like from the ashes dare we dream we too might survive the tomb. May we, like eucalypts after Ash Wednesday fires, spring back and flower anew!

Listen to the Audio: http://www.xt3.com/library/view.php?id=18119&categoryId=36&episodeId=2237