06 Mar 2019

Ever heard of Joe McVicker, his uncle Noah and sister-in-law Kay Zufall? Probably not. But I suspect you’ve heard of their invention: a non-toxic, non-staining, white putty invented by Noah for a Cincinnati soap company, Kutol Products, and used in the 1930s and 40s to clean wallpapers stained with soot from coal fires. By the 1950s gas heaters and vinyl wallpaper had rendered the putty obsolete, and the company was going under. Then Joe joined the company with the remit of saving it from bankruptcy – though he and his uncle were at a loss what to do. Then Kay had a bright idea. As a preschool teacher she’d used the putty for art projects with her students, and found they far preferred it to hard modelling clay. Now she convinced the McVickers to colour and market it to children as a modelling clay called ‘Play-Doh’. The rest, as they say, is history!

Fear not, I will not be rubbing Play-Doh into your foreheads this Ash Wednesday. But I think the story of Play-Doh does have something to say to us as we begin the season of Lent…

“During the Lenten season each of the faithful undergoes a thorough purification,” the great theologian, St. John Chrysostom said, “by means of prayer, almsgiving, fasting, watching.”[i] Prayer, almsgiving and fasting, fine: these are the practices Jesus commended in our Gospel passage (Mt 6:1-6,16-18). But watching: what’s that about? What are we supposed to be watching? Watching ourselves, examining our own hearts, looking for ways to convert, to bend our minds and wills a little more in God’s general direction. Only then can we be, as St Paul describes us, ambassadors of Christ (1 Cor 5:20-6:2). In Lent God says, in the words of the prophet Joel, “Come back to me with all your heart… return to the Lord your God, for He is all tenderness and compassion” (Joel 2:12-8).

That’s what Lent, with the extra prayer, charitable giving, and abstinence from things we like, is all about: reorienting ourselves to our true goal, eternity with God in heaven. But we make such adjustments not just for our own sakes or for the sake of our relationship with God, but also for the sake of others. I remember some years ago I gave up coffee and tea for Lent. The next year my staff petitioned me not to give up tea and coffee again: apparently I had been a grumpy boss the previous Lent! Well, our penances are not supposed to be penances for others. Indeed, St. John Chrysostom makes the point that part of our Lenten ‘watching’ is watching how we think about and treat others. Get how we think and behave towards God, each other and ourselves right and we can truly represent Christ to others.

Sometimes that seems an Herculean task – something only a son of a god could achieve. That’s where Play-Doh comes in. The story of Play-Doh is a reminder that we are often only a small adjustment away from success, but that the smallest shift can sometimes mean a large difference. Simply by adding colour to the putty, saying it is modelling clay rather than wallpaper cleaner, and then marketing it to children instead of adults, McVicker turned the company from bankruptcy to making millions. Likewise, we too don’t always need to make drastic changes to ourselves (though sometimes we might); often spiritual and moral progress is about making small adjustments.

There is another respect in which Play-Doh might speak to us in Lent. When the priest says to us “Remember that you are dust and that to dust you shall return” and puts ashes on our foreheads, he is recalling the story from the Book of Genesis in which “the Lord God formed man out of the dust of the earth, and then breathed a soul into his nostrils, so that the man [of dust] became a living being” (Gen 2:7). In this story God is the Master Potter and we are his Play-Doh. Though it’s up to us to do the fasting, alms and prayer, it’s up to God to mould us into the kinds of people we’re meant to be. If reaching heaven is a task only a son of a god can achieve, we’re on the right track if we invite the Son of God Himself to make His little adjustments in us.

So, for the six weeks of this Lent, pray: go to Mass each Sunday if that’s not already your practice; if Sunday Mass is already a habit, add a weekday Mass as well; go to confession; pray the Rosary; have some quiet time adoring our Lord in the tabernacle; make a little extra ‘me time’ with God each day, even if it’s just a few minutes more than normal.

And, for the six weeks of this Lent, fast: abstain from meat today and on Good Friday as the Church requires; indeed, why not make that every Friday till Easter? Cut the snacking. Fast from social media, at least on Fridays. Identify your own particular addiction or compulsion or bad habit and try going ‘cold turkey’ for Lent.

And, for the six weeks of this Lent, give alms: Project Compassion is an easy way of giving to the poor at this time. Not just your loose change: give so it bites a bit. Give so you’ve got to give up some little pleasure, for once and give what you save to the poor. Or invest yourself in them, by visiting a sick or elderly person. Or by volunteering some time to a charity…

If Lent is about making those little adjustments that turn our souls from spiritually bankrupt to spiritually rich, then Ash Wednesday is reminds us how. When I put ash on your forehead say the words “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” remember where you come from and where you are going; like Adam you are from the earth and will return to the earth. In the meantime we are Play-Doh in God’s hands. Resolve today to let Him make something worthwhile with you this Lent!


St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica, Sydney

Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral, your College chapel, on this morning for the Ash Wednesday Mass, marking the beginning of Lent. I acknowledge the presence of your College Chaplain, Fr Emmanuel Seo, and Principal Michael Kelleher, with the staff of the College. To all teachers, students and others present this morning, a very warm welcome!

[i] St. John Chrysostom, Oration 3 Against the Jews