Tag Archives: mercy

Homily – Funeral for Shamus Martin

Last week I had what was perhaps the most difficult funeral I’ve ever had. One of our parishioners, a middle-aged and beloved man, took his own life. We’ll never really understand why he did this, but we trust in God’s mercy and turn to Jesus in prayer and in sorrow. The following is the homily I gave for Shamus’ funeral. May he rest in peace.

Loneliness… Have you ever noticed how lonely people are? And I don’t just mean today; people have always been lonely, though I think it’s more severe in our time than it was before. Have you ever wondered why that is, why people are lonely? If you take time to think about, and are honest about it, you’ll come to see that everyone is lonely. Yes, absolutely everyone is lonely.

The great rock icon Freddie Mercury once said: “You can have everything in the world and still be the loneliest man. And that is the most bitter type of loneliness, success has brought me world idolisation and millions of pounds. But it’s prevented me from having the one thing we all need: A loving, ongoing relationship” (Rock On Freddie, 1985).

You see, that’s because loneliness isn’t a disease, it’s at the heart of the human condition. From the very beginning of Creation, man has felt a certain loneliness, a need for an ‘other’. God Himself said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him (Gen 2:18). And so God created the animals. But that didn’t suit the man. Then God created woman, and the two became one flesh.

When God created us in His own image and likeness, He created us for union with an ‘other’. Just as God is in Himself a communion of three Divine Persons, so too, has humanity been created for communion. We’ve been created with the need for others, and not just in a marital way, but with the need for deep personal communion with others; it’s part of our design.

Unfortunately, the great tragedy of original sin broke down communion: it broke communion with God, with others, with Creation, and even with ourselves. And it didn’t just break down communion, but even broke down our ability for communion. The joy and oneness of communion now became a sense of isolation and loneliness.

And yet, we still long for communion, we still need this communion, because it’s what we’ve been created for. Now, however, we just can’t seem to achieve it; the other person always remains ‘other’. This is the great misery of the human person.

Well, it’s into this misery that God entered by becoming a man in Jesus Christ. Jesus entered into this misery, lived it out, and even went into its very depths through His Passion on the Cross. Remember His cry on the Cross? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Mt 27:46). Or the Lamentation we sing on Good Friday: Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow (Lam 1:12b) Jesus entered into the abyss of human loneliness — further, I think, than any of us can even imagine —, deep into the darkness of despair. And He did this so that He might be there with us, in the deepest recesses of our loneliness. He did this so that no one could ever say that they’re too far from God to be saved. As Jesus said, the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost (Lk 19:10; cf. Mt 18:11).

Jesus has gone to the ends, not of the world, but of being in order to save His lost sheep. This, my brothers and sisters, if God’s mercy! This is how deeply He loves us and desires for us to be with Him. Because the truth of the matter is that while our ability for communion has been compromised by sin, His has not. While our loved ones will always remain distant and separate from us, Jesus makes Himself one with us! This is why He became man. This is why He died on the Cross. This is why He continues to call us to Himself.

Yes, loneliness is at the heart of the human condition, and it will never be completely gone, but Jesus invites us to a unique personal relationship with Him that transcends our limitations, even in this life. We need not hide our loneliness from Him, but rather we need to bring it to Him, because only He can truly understand it. Part of what keeps us apart from one another in this life is that we can’t ‘get inside’ of one another; we can’t read each other’s minds, each other’s hearts. The other person forever remains a mystery, especially if they put up barriers. As the actor Robin Williams once said, “All it takes is beautiful fake smile to hide an injured soul and they will never notice how broken you really are”. But we can’t hide this from God, because He knows the depths of our hearts, He knows our brokenness better than we do.

But we shouldn’t hide our loneliness from each other either. Instead, we ought to come together before the Lord in our misery, in our deepest longing for communion. Because in doing so we not only find solace in one another, but we find friendship in Christ, friendship through Christ, which leads to communion with one another. And that, my brothers and sisters, is the heart of the Church! Brothers and sisters who come to Jesus, together in their woundedness, together in their loneliness, together in their brokenness to find strength and hope in Him, and companionship with one another.

While we all face loneliness, no one should face it alone — in fact, no one does face it alone, but Jesus is always with us; in the depth of our brokenness, in the depth of our suffering, in the depth of our darkness, He is there, waiting for us, waiting to bring His light and His grace, waiting to bring us together to the Father. May we never forget — no matter how lonely we may feel — that we’re never alone: Jesus is here. Amen.


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Homily – Sunday OT 15 C

Deut 30:10-14
Ps 19         R/. The precepts of the Lord are right, and give joy to the heart.
Col 1:15-20
Lk 10:25-37

Audio of the Homily.

Today in our Gospel reading we encounter one of Luke’s great parables of mercy — one of the best-known parables of the Bible along with the Parable of the Prodigal Son. I think it’s safe to say that most people know this story by heart.

But knowing it and understanding it are two different things. While this parable touches the human heart of all who hear it, how many of us are moved to imitate it? When we hear it, do we just say, “Yeah, I know that one. Mercy is good; Jesus is good. It makes me feel good”, or do we reflect on it and say, “Wow, that’s really challenging! I generally don’t help people in this way. Maybe I should. With the help of God’s grace I will!”?GoodSamaritan

You see, too often we hear the words of Jesus and our selfishness filter kicks in and we push them to the back of our minds and pat ourselves on the back with reassurances that we’re nice to others and that we nonetheless do ‘good’ things, even if we don’t go as far as the Good Samaritan. But this isn’t enough!

In the last verse of today’s Gospel, Jesus is quite clear, Go and do likewise (v. 37). Jesus wants us to go and show mercy to others, and He doesn’t make it a suggestion, He commands it: Go and do! And as Moses tells us in the first reading, Obey the Lord your God by observing His commandments and decrees (Deut 30:10). To be merciful as God is merciful is a necessary dimension of the Christian life (cf. Lk 6:36)! This has been a central message of Pope Francis’ pontificate and the reason why he’s given us this Jubilee Year of Mercy: we really do need to go and do likewise.

But in order for us to do likewise, we first need to experience and understand the depths of God’s mercy, and that’s also at the heart of this parable.

Jesus gives this parable in answer to a question, what must I do to inherit eternal life? (v. 25). In other words, to inherit eternal life we must be merciful like the Good Samaritan. It’s not enough to just love God; we must also love our neighbour, and this love is expressed first and foremost through mercy.

In the parable, the Priest and Levite — Jewish ministers of God — pass by the half-dead man. Now it’s not that they didn’t see him or that they simply ignored him, or even that they didn’t feel moved by his condition. They most certainly did see him, but they were stopped from helping him because they put themselves and their needs and plans ahead of the man.

You see, in Jewish law, touching a dead body would defile you, make you ritually impure. Had they helped him, the Priest and Levite could not have fulfilled their religious office as ministers, at least for a week or so. They refused to help the man in order to stay pure, to remain ‘holy’ according to the Law. They put themselves ahead of the needy man; they didn’t want to be inconvenienced. They were being selfish, and this is what prevented them from having mercy. It’s this attitude that Pope Francis decries as ‘pharisaic’. Through this parable Jesus calls us not to be concerned about what the needy person believes, how they live, what they think of us, and so on; He just calls us to respond to their needs, and to do so with love.

The Good Samaritan didn’t let the purity laws be an obstacle. Moreover, Samaritans and Jews were sworn enemies, and yet, he was moved with pity (v. 33) for the half-dead man. He was able to see and respond to the needs of the man with mercy and compassion because he understood that the Law of Moses was intended not to make him cold-hearted, but loving. He understood that charity trumps the Law, and so he allowed his love of God to move him to mercy, and was able not only to help the man but also show that he in fact loved God with all his heart, soul, strength and mind, and his neighbour as himself (cf. v. 27).

But the Parable of the Good Samaritan isn’t just a moral lesson; it’s also an allegory of our own life. St. Augustine says that we are the man half dead by the road. Through the devil’s deceptions, we’ve been beaten by sin to the point of death. Jesus is the Samaritan who, moved with pity, picks us up and brings us to the inn (the Church) for healing and recovery through the Sacraments (symbolised by the oil and the wine). It’s Jesus who goes down into the ditch of our sin to carry us out and bring us forgiveness, healing and holiness. This is what Pope Francis means when he says the Church is a ‘field hospital’; it’s where Jesus brings wounded sinners for healing and recovery.

Is this how we see ourselves? Do we see ourselves as wounded sinners, half dead along the road, in need of mercy, healing and forgiveness? Only when we see ourselves as being in need of mercy, of being rescued by Jesus, of being saved by Jesus from sin and death — only then will we be able to turn around and be merciful to those around us.

The Priest and the Levite thought they could achieve holiness by their own efforts in strictly following the Laws of Moses. The Good Samaritan understood that God’s love for him called him to help the man in need. Jesus tells us that we, too, need to recognise our own brokenness, allowing it to lead us into His care and grace, so that in turn we might go out and be merciful to those in need; that in gratitude for the mercy we’ve received from Him, we should ‘pay it forward’, as it were.

As we celebrate this Year of Mercy, may we allow God’s mercy to bring us to repentance, healing and conversion, so that in turn we might go and do likewise, bringing mercy to a world, half-dead and in desperate need God’s mercy, healing and grace. Amen.

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Homily – Sunday Lent IV C – The Joy of the Father’s Mercy

Rembrandt_FilsProdigue PS

Jos 5:9, 10-12
Ps 34         R/. Taste and see that the Lord is good.
2 Cor 5:17-21
Lk 15:1-3, 11-32

What a beautiful story our Lord shares with us today, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. We’ve all heard many times in our lives; I’m sure you’re all very familiar with it, so today, I won’t give a lengthy exegesis of the parable but rather focus just on one aspect: the father’s welcome.

Let’s listen to that passage again: … while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him (Lk 15:20). What a beautiful scene! Instead of scolding his son for having rejected him — by asking for his inheritance early, the son was essentially saying, ‘You’re dead to me’ — and wasted his inheritance, the father embraces him, clothes him with the best robe, and puts a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. In other words, the father removes the signs of slavery and sin and restores his son to the fullness of the dignity of sonship that he had before.

This, my brothers and sisters, is why we rejoice today on Laetare Sunday. Because God is the compassionate and loving father who embraces us, his prodigal children, when we return to Him repenting of our sins! Like the father in the parable, God waits for our return, watching for us in the distance, and then, when He sees us, He eagerly runs out to meet us. Yes, there is indeed more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents (Lk 15:7).

And it’s this eager, joyful compassion that God extends to us that we’re called to remember in this Lenten season as we examine our hearts, repent of our sins, and turn back to the Father. That’s why we do Lenten penances, to express our sorrow: Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you (Lk 15:18). And when we do this in humility and with a genuine sorrow for our sins, then the Heavenly Father embraces us just as in the parable, and He renews our sonship, clothing us with the best robe: the garment of salvation, the robe of righteousness (cf. Is 61:10).

But God’s joy in our return doesn’t stop there! He also celebrates our return with a great feast. God is generous in His love and mercy, and this, this is why today we rejoice. Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her. Be joyful, all who were in mourning; exult, for God welcomes sinners (Is 66:10-11; Lk 15:2).

Through the grace of Christ, and the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, may we also truly repent of our sins and return home to the Father to share in His joy. Amen.

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Homily – Sunday OT 6 B

Lev 13:1-2, 45-46

Ps 32: 1-2, 5, 11      R/. You are my refuge, Lord; with deliverance you surround me.

1 Cor 10:31-11:1

Mk 1:40-45

Christ cleanses the Leper, Anonymous, Duomo di Monreale (Monreale, Sicily)

Christ Cleanses the Leper, Anonymous, Duomo di Monreale (Monreale, Sicily)

Our Gospel passage for today may well be short, but it’s really quite packed with content. If we take a closer look at it, we can see four different movements that take place: first, the leper begs Jesus for help; second, Jesus heals him; third, Jesus sends him to the priest; and fourth, the healed leper proclaims his good news freely.

Mark is intentional in these different movements, because they’re an important part of the message he’s trying to share with us. That’s because the story of the leper is our story! If we go back to the first reading: for the Jewish community, a leper was considered sick beyond hope, and for the health and safety of others, a leper couldn’t live with the rest of the community. Lepers were to be banished. That’s what it meant for a Jewish person to be unclean; they couldn’t participate in the social and religious life of the community.

As I said, the leper’s story is our story, because each one of us, as a consequence of our sins, has been banished from the Kingdom, from God’s community; sin has made us unclean. But our uncleanliness isn’t a hopeless one like that of the Jewish lepers, because we have access to Jesus, who can heal us.

You see, if you remember, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus began His ministry by reading a passage from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah and applying it to His life and ministry. He said: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free (Lk 4:18).

Jesus came to set us free! He came that we might have life and have it in abundance (cf. Jn 10:10). It’s this gift of abundant life that He shared with the leper in today’s Gospel, and it’s this same gift that He so deeply desires to share with each one of us!

So how can we have access to this gift? Well, here’s why the rest of the story is important. First, like the leper, we must ask Jesus to heal us, to free us, to give us new life. Jesus said: Behold! I am standing at the door, knocking (Rev 3:20). He’s right there, waiting for us to open up to Him and invite Him in. Jesus, if you choose, you can make me clean (Mk 1:40). And we know from this Gospel passage and from the Cross, that Jesus doesn’t hesitate to choose to heal us when we give ourselves to Him and trust in His love and mercy. That’s the second movement.

In the third movement, Mark tells us that Jesus sent the healed leper to the priest. This is how Mark shows that Jesus obeyed the Law from the first Reading, and even worked within it. Jesus continues to work in this same way today in the Church. That’s why He gave Priests the power to forgive sins. And so in a sense, we can see in this passage a foreshadowing of Confession.

And finally, in the fourth movement, the cleansed leper shares the joyful news of his healing with everyone. Now at first glance this appears to disobey what Jesus told him: say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest (Mk 1:44). But I think that this is more related to Jesus’ respect of the Law, and that this command is linked to his visit to the priest. It’s not that Jesus doesn’t want the leper to proclaim the good news, but that Jesus desired him to give thanks to God for the cleansing before he begins to share the news (cf. Lk 17:11-19).

This applies to us today, too. When Jesus heals us and frees us of our ‘leprosy’, we, too, need to humble ourselves before Him in thanksgiving before we go forth to share the joyful news with others. Because this healing is a gift of God’s mercy, a gift of His grace; one that we did nothing to merit, but that He freely gives out of love for us, and this love needs to be acknowledged first.

But, after giving thanks, we must go out and share with others the joy of our salvation. Being healed and freed by God is definitely Good News, and it should be shared with conviction and zeal. This is our mission as Christians; this is our mission as a people healed by God through the waters of Baptism. That’s why the dismissal at the end of Mass always has some form of ‘Go forth’, because we’re called to go out and proclaim the Good News of our salvation to the ends of the earth, so that others might come to know the healing love of Christ Jesus.

Jesus came to heal and save all people, and He’s chosen to include us in this mission; may we, by His grace, joyfully and faithfully carry it out. Amen.

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Homily – Divine Mercy Sunday

This Sunday Deacon Ken will be preaching so I don’t have an ‘original’ Homily to post, so here’s last year’s Homily for Divine Mercy Sunday:

*        *        *

DivineMercy05My 17th birthday started off as a really crummy day.

I slept-in and missed both the school bus and the car ride, so I had to take public transportation, and that meant a long bus ride and a long walk. A few blocks away from the school, as I was walking and sulking in my misery, a quick thought came to mind: What if God didn’t exist?

So in my sour mood I asked God what it would be like if He didn’t exist. For a split second I felt a profound emptiness: a sensation that I can only describe as total darkness and hopelessness. At that very moment I decided I never wanted to live without God, and that I never wanted to experience that again, ever!

While it wasn’t quite as significant as putting my finger in the wound of Christ, this was a turning moment for me in my life. In my unhappiness that morning, God showed me that He existed; He showed me that He loved me, and that only in Him could I have hope; only in Him could I have life. For me, that was a gift of His mercy.

Today we end the Easter Octave with a solemn celebration of Christ’s Mercy, the mercy that drove Him to reach out to us in our sinfulness; the mercy that led Him to lay down His life on the Cross to atone for our sins.

This special feast in honour of Jesus’ Divine Mercy is rooted in the visions of St. Faustina Kowalska, a Polish mystic of the early 20th century. In her visions, Jesus asked her to share with the world the tremendous love with which He invites us to be reconciled with Him:

Tell the world about My mercy and My love, [Jesus told Sr. Faustina]. The flames of mercy are burning me. I desire to pour them upon human souls. Oh, what pain they cause Me when they do not want to accept them! […] Tell aching mankind to snuggle close to my merciful Heart, and I will fill it with peace.

Tell [all people], My daughter, that I am Love and Mercy itself. When a soul approaches Me with trust, I fill it with such an abundance of graces that it cannot contain them within itself, but radiates them to other souls (Diary, 1074).

When Jesus offered His life on the Cross out of love for us, He did so to free us from our sins, but not so that we could go on sinning as before! Jesus paid for our sins so that we might be free to live in His love, that we might receive His gift of mercy and allow it to transform our hearts and our lives. Christ’s mercy is a gift that we don’t deserve, but it’s one that He nonetheless extends to us, and He does so with great hope for us!

Jesus told us in the Gospels that He came to call sinners to repentance (cf. Lk 5:32; Mk 2:17). Well, if we want to receive His mercy and be freed from our sins, so as to live in His love and share in His life, we need to repent; we need to be sorry for our sins, and want to change; God’s mercy and grace will take it from there. But if we’re not sorry for our sins, then we’re left to ourselves; God never imposes His mercy and love upon us. A gift can only be offered, its reception can’t be forced; otherwise it’s no longer a gift.

Yes, Jesus died once and for all for the forgiveness of all sins, but this gift isn’t magic; forgiveness isn’t automatic: we need to be sorry for our sins. Without repentance, there can be no forgiveness!

Jesus 16As Jesus says in the book of Revelation, Behold, I am standing at the door, knocking. Jesus won’t force His way in. But as the verse continues: if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me (Rev 3:20). If we open our hearts to His mercy, Jesus will fill us with His love and grace, forgive us our sins, and strengthen us for holiness; He’ll share His victory with us so that it becomes our victory.

This is the feast we celebrate today on Divine Mercy Sunday; this is the gift that Jesus offers us on the Cross. And He continues to extend this same mercy to us today. That’s why the Risen Lord still bears in His body the marks of the Cross, the marks of His love, the marks of His mercy. His risen body testifies to His abundant mercy and love.

Moved by this mercy, may we come to rightly understand… by whose Blood [we] have been redeemed (Collect for the Mass), and by what great love we’re called to repentance. May we open our hearts to God’s grace so as to be transformed by His mercy and love, so that in turn, we might offer that same mercy to others, helping them to encounter Christ.

Eternal Father, [we] offer you the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of your dearly beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world.

For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world. Amen.

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Homily – Sunday Lent III A

Ex 17:3-7
Ps 95   R/O that today you would listen to the voice of the Lord. Do not harden your hearts!
Rom 5:1-2, 5-8
Jn 4:5-42

The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is a fascinating encounter; it’s rich in theology and deep in meaning. In fact, we could easily spend hours talking about this story, line by line, verse by verse, drinking the Truth and Life that gushes forth from it. But, even though it is Lent, I’m going to spare you that penance today and focus on only one dimension of the text.

Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well, by Pietro Negri (1679)

Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well, by Pietro Negri (1679)

Notice that when Jesus confronts the woman at the well with her sins, He does just that: He confronts her. There’s no judgement on His part, there’s no condemnation; Jesus merely calls her attention to her sins (and the fact that He knows them), and He challenges her to repentance and conversion: If you knew the gift of God…(Jn 4:10) And if we really did know the gift of God, how could we ever choose to sin?

My brothers and sister, Jesus continues to challenge us to conversion today, and He does this explicitly through His Church. When the Church speaks out on issues of morality — abortion, euthanasia, Marriage, homosexual activity, contraception, premarital sex, poverty, gambling, and so on —, she does so not out of condemnation, but out of her prophetic duty to proclaim the Word of God and to call people to conversion. The sense of guilt someone might feel when hearing the Church’s message of truth doesn’t come from a ‘condemnation by the Church’; imitating her Lord, she merely calls attention to sin and challenges the sinner to repent.

Guilt? Well, guilt comes from within! We experience guilt when we’re judged, not by others, but by our own conscience. And our conscience is capable of judging us like this because we’re created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:27), and His law is written on our hearts: I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts, prophesied Jeremiah (Jer 31:33). This is confirmed by St. Paul when he writes about the pagans in his letter to the Romans: …what the Law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them (Rom 2:15).

As any criminal psychologist will tell you, it’s not the court that makes a criminal feel remorse or guilt. Feelings of guilt and remorse must come from within a person; they can’t be imposed from without. It’s the same with sin. When we commit sin, it’s our conscience and our heart that condemn us. And when the final judgement comes, God won’t so much condemn us as ratify the judgement our conscience has made against us. If we’ve failed to listen to our conscience, if we’ve failed to properly educate and strengthen it, then we’ll be liable to the judgement of our conscience, which will speak out against us for not having listened, for not having obeyed, for not having formed it according to the truth. In short, if we’re condemned, it’ll be because we condemned ourselves.

But as the Psalm today says: O that today you would listen to the voice of the Lord. Do not harden your hearts!  My brothers and sisters, may we not harden our hearts when God calls attention to our sins; may we not harden our hearts when the Church calls attention to our sins; may we not harden our hearts when our conscience calls attention to our sins. Instead, may we turn back to God, asking Him for forgiveness, for healing, for the grace of repentance and conversion.

You see, this is the beauty of our God, that He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live (Ez 33:11). God wants us to turn back to Him: in His love for us, He is merciful and wants to save us, but we must repent of our sins and change our ways for conversion to take root. This is the invitation Jesus makes to the Samaritan woman in our Gospel today. And notice how when He named her sins, Jesus didn’t do it to condemn her, but to call her to repentance, …and that’s precisely what she did! Confronted with her sins, laid bare in front of her by this stranger, she chose to seek forgiveness. That’s because before talking to her about her sins, Jesus loved her; and made her thirsty for His love (cf. Jn 4:10-15). Filled with the joy and excitement of having encountered Christ and His forgiveness, she immediately begins to evangelise, sharing this message of hope, this Good News about the love and mercy of God: Come and see…! (Jn 4:29)

Confronted with her sins, the Samaritan woman, instead of getting angry and trying to silence the voice calling her to repentance, chose to listen and drink of the water being offered her, so as to benefit from the eternal life that gushes forth from it. She listened to the voice of God calling her back, and because of that, she came to [know] the Gift of God, and grew in faith and in holiness.

My brothers and sisters, Jesus’ mission is to call sinners back to the Father, and this is made most visible on the Cross, as St. Paul says in the second reading: God proves his love for us that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. Again, God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live (Ez 33:11). God and the Church call attention to our sins not to condemn us, but to educate us so that we might repent, turn back to God, and live.

And so, when the Church’s teachings confront us with our own sins or errors and we feel guilty, it’s important for us to remember that the Church isn’t condemning us, and that she isn’t the source of our guilt. Rather, we need to follow the example of the woman at the well, and recognise God’s call to conversion and accept the life-giving water that He’s offering. O that today [we] would listen to the voice of the Lord. [Let us] not harden [our] hearts (Ps 95:7c-8a), but rather embrace God’s mercy and forgiveness, confessing our sins and turning back to Him with all our hearts, because only in Christ can we ever be at peace with God (cf. Rom 5:1); only in Christ ca we ever be at peace with ourselves. Amen.

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Homily – Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:12-18
Ps 51   R/. Have mercy, O Lord, for we have sinned. 
2 Cor 5:20-6:2
Mt 6:1-6, 16-18


My brothers and sisters, the Christian life is all about imitating Christ, and Lent is about taking the time to see where we’re at in that journey of becoming like Christ.

Ash-WednesdayWe begin Lent today with a spirit of penance and repentance because we recognise that we don’t always live like Christ; because we recognise that sometimes we don’t even try to imitate Him; and because we recognise that at times we even choose to turn away from Him, preferring instead the glamour of sin.

This is the reality of our human weakness: we are attacked everyday by various temptations — some of which we even create ourselves —, and too often we simply give-in to them without a fight. And so, as we embark on this annual journey of Lent, this journey of conversion, we do so by acknowledging our sinfulness, by acknowledging our love for God, and by acknowledging our need for His grace to persevere in faithful discipleship and to grow in holiness.

Today, we put on ashes as a sign of this repentance, and as a sign of our desire for conversion. Taken from the ancient Jewish custom, the placing of ashes on our heads is an act of publically acknowledging our sinfulness, and of humbling ourselves in the sight of God, remembering that we are little more than ashes, for from dust we were created and to dust we shall return (cf. Gen 3:19).

It’s also a means of calling upon God’s goodness. If we look at all the times in the Old Testament when people put on sackcloth and ashes as a sign of repentance and conversion, it’s almost always accompanied by prayers calling for God’s mercy.[1]  And so, the imposition of ashes also signifies turning our hearts back to God and asking for His mercy.

These two dimensions — humble repentance and prayer for mercy — are at the heart of the entire Lenten season, and so we see in this symbolic act of ashes the meaning of this holy Season: repentance and conversion; and it opens us up to the triple practice of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, which are characteristic of Lent.

Prayer deepens our relationship with God, helps us to recognise our sinfulness and our need for Him, and strengthens us to better live the Christian life.

Fasting helps us to make room for God by shedding the things we don’t really need, the things that tend to distract us from God, and it helps us to discipline our bodies and desires so that we’re better able to resist temptation. By saying ‘no’ to good things we learn to better say ‘no’ to evil. Fasting also helps us to identify with the poor who often go hungry on a daily basis.

Almsgiving helps us to be detached from our material possessions so as to share the gifts we’ve received with those in need.

Together, prayer, fasting and almsgiving are intended to bring us closer to God and to make us stronger in faith and in love. As such, then, they’re more than just ‘something we do during Lent;’ they’re really at the very heart of the Christian life. The Church simply highlights these three weapons during Lent in the hope that our renewed efforts in these areas will continue beyond the 40 days, bearing fruit throughout the whole year, indeed throughout our whole life.

When training for an upcoming season, athletes prepare themselves by renewing their commitment to fitness and by increasing their efforts to train their bodies for the stamina and strength required for their sport.

Lent is like a spiritual ‘spring training’: it’s a time we take to renew our commitment to the spiritual life and to increase our efforts to be holy through prayer, fasting and almsgiving. But just like the athlete who needs to keep a healthy lifestyle throughout the year so as to be ready for training and competition, so, too, do we need to sustain throughout the year the progress we make during Lent, each year building upon the last.

But the penance we do during Lent, and the discipline of discipleship we build through it, isn’t for its own sake; it’s not meant to make us into sad Christians, depressed by our sins and weighed down by our penance. The Christian life isn’t some endless cycle of Lent, of ‘training for competition’, of just fighting temptation! Though that’s certainly a part of it, the Christian life goes far beyond that, because it always looks beyond the fight against evil to Christ’s victory on the Cross.

And so, just as Lent already points us beyond penance toward the joy of Easter, the joy of the Resurrection, so, too, does the Christian life point beyond the struggle against sin toward eternal life in the Kingdom. You see, the Christian life is intended to prepare us for Heaven, to help us become holy so that we might be ready to share in the blessed joy of eternal union with God. Lent is merely the warm-up exercise that helps us to better and more properly live the life of holiness to which we’ve been called by virtue of our Baptism.

The placing of ashes on our heads today is an external sign of our commitment to this renewal of faith, a physical sign on our bodies that represents the internal, spiritual reality that’s taking place in our souls. And so, with these ashes, we humbly turn our hearts back to God and ask Him to fill us with His grace, to strengthen us against temptation, to make us holy. Amen.

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Filed under Feasts of the Year, Homily, Lent